What’s the Story With Storytelling?
SPOILER ALERT: If you are dealing with an advertising, marketing, or branding agency, someone is going to mention “storytelling.”
No, this doesn’t mean that it’s time to pull up your floor mat and sit criss-cross applesauce while you listen quietly to the librarian recount some old fable told in the oral tradition. What they are talking about is how messaging should take advantage of the fact that even sugar-and-ADHD-addled children will shut up and listen when a story is being told.
And it’s not even because people have been trained to do so since kindergarten. It goes far deeper than that. Turns out storytelling is ingrained in our culture, an integral part of the human experience since long before anyone got the bright idea to start writing things down.
Once Upon a Time: The Storytelling Story
Chances are, you’ve suddenly been jolted awake from a dream in which you were falling. These dreams come from deep in our brainstems, dating back to a time when our ancestors slept in trees, and falling was a very real danger, making it a deeply-ingrained fear.
The human affinity for storytelling is a lot like that.
We may have ditched the trees for better real estate, but it still took humans thousands of years before we developed a written language (something like 5,500 years ago). Until that happened (and long afterwards, since most people still couldn’t read or write), everything important that we learned had to be passed on in the oral tradition (which sounds a lot sexier than it really is).
So little details like what foods you could eat without dying, how to make a fire, or how to care for a baby all had to be passed on verbally, generation to generation. But, if you’ve ever played “telephone” (or “Chinese Whispers” as Wikipedia calls it), you know how unreliable people can be in passing along information verbally. So how did we ever manage to survive?
As an evolved human that can read and reason, you’ve probably already sussed the answer. Yes, it’s storytelling.
Storytelling and Survival
Rather than expecting your toddler to remember basic facts about how to survive, prehistoric parents wrapped their knowledge in stories that helped bring essential knowledge to life.
Stories didn’t just tell tales, they tried to explain WHY things are the way that they are, usually getting it comically wrong despite being good enough for ignorant cave-dwellers to believe in. And these stories weren’t just explanations of things like why the sun rises and sets. They were the predominant form of entertainment for dozens of millennia.
Instead of television, early, stupid humans had a sky full of stars, and used their primitive imaginations to try to make awkward connect-the-dots pictures to go along with their stories, helping them remember them by virtually writing them in the sky.
Some of these stories even survive to this day in the form of astrology and ancient mythologies. But they aren’t the point. Storytelling is.
Because storytelling still connects with people at the deepest levels.
Telling and Selling
Today, marketers rely upon storytelling for very different purposes.
Mostly, it is used as a means of fighting for space in the crowded brains of today’s audiences.
Unlike stupid ancient humans who were so bored that they had to make up reruns of old stories out of stars in the night sky, today’s audiences are massively saturated with entertainment. It comes at them from every direction, in every medium, giving them an endless stream of stuff to pay attention to. And marketers have to compete with all that noise in order to make a difference.
Storytelling is a way to leverage these primal instincts and capture enough attention and awareness to move the needle in promoting businesses, goods, and services. But it is not so much a trick as a tactic, because it doesn’t always work.
Capturing awareness itself is only half the battle when trying to sell or convert audiences. Knowing a brand exists does not necessitate patronizing it. A pitch still needs to be made.
Fortunately, this is where storytelling excels.
As you may remember from the story above (yes, you better believe storytelling is being used in this blog), the resonant part of a story is often the rationale it provides.
Ancient Greeks may not have actually believed that the seasons were caused by the goddess Demeter being sad after her daughter Persephone was kidnapped by her uncle, but it was as good an explanation as any. And it wasn’t hard to understand how that might make a goddess of fertility sad enough to let winter happen. They could relate. So the myth of Hades and his queen Persephone endures to this day, thousands of years later.
Storytelling in marketing works the same way. The stories themselves are far less fantastic, but are still quite effective. Instead of the goddess of fertility losing her daughter to her brother-in-law, the king of the underworld, you have some poor dude catching shit from his wife for secretly talking to Jake from State Farm about his policy.
Is it as consequential as the change of seasons? Maybe not until you file a claim, but the story works the same. Audiences could relate, so they remembered.
Why: The Shortest Story Ever Told
The biggest problem with storytelling in marketing is brevity. Your stupid caveman ancestors may have been bored enough to stare at the stars for hours on end, but today’s audiences cannot pay attention long enough to reach the end of a sentence (go ahead and pat yourself on the back for this stunning achievement).
Thus most of the “storytelling” you’re likely to encounter today is actually a “story” reduced to its simplest form: rationale.
Just a few decades ago, ads on TV were a minute long, a luxurious stretch of time in which a visual story could be developed and told. Today, videos delivered over the Internet have just 6 seconds to capture a viewer’s attention. There is no room for characters and plots. There is scarcely even time for explanation.
Marketers must be extremely succinct in their storytelling, even if the goal remains the same: capture attention, explain something, and resonate with the audience emotionally.
Thus, much of today’s storytelling relies upon implied narratives. It takes shortcuts. For example, audiences don’t need to know the name or occupation of the guy calling Jake from State Farm in order to relate with him and the plight of being married. And that’s still a “long form” ad.
Often longer stories such as these will lead a campaign, allowing for shorter ads to save time by referencing the larger story. Since repetition is the key to making things memorable, this fractured storytelling system works reasonably well.
But today’s media is not really designed for storytelling.
Social media ads often have to lead with an advantage the product or service offers. There is no room to explain what the product or service actually is, only why consumers should want it. Here, the jealous saga of Jake from State Farm becomes something like “Switch and Save,” which is one of the shortest and least interesting stories you’ll ever read, unless you happen to be looking to save money on insurance.
We don’t know Jake from State Farm, nor does this blog article intend to promote State Farm Insurance. DAMN GOOD agency is just in it for the backlinks – and of course for the story about storytelling that needed to be told.