How to tell stories that matter
For me, the most striking example of the power and persuasion of storytelling is, itself, a story. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s in the form of a TV show: a scene from ABC drama Mad Men.
Our hero, 1960s advertising creative director Don Draper, is asked to pitch for business with Kodak who are launching a new piece of kit – a wheel-like storage device for a slide projector. The brief is to communicate how revolutionary and exciting it is. I can’t do his pitch justice here, you’re much better off watching it for yourself. But suffice it to say, one person leaves the room in tears and the prospective clients are left speechless as Don’s boss quips “Good luck at your next meeting…”
Don doesn’t share information or deliver a message; he tells a story and paints a picture, tapping into deep-seated, universal emotions as he does so. Why is that so impactful? Because as humans we tell stories to make sense of our world; they are the signal within the noise. Stories connect us with each other and understand more about ourselves and the world around us. It’s no wonder, then, that every human culture, across all of time, has storytelling.
The best stories follow guidelines. Just as the brain detects and decodes patterns in the visual forms of nature (a face, a figure, a flower) as well as in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we can find meaning.
A good story, then, has three core elements: structure, plot and characters. In TV, we talk about format, narrative & casting, but these are just variations on these three themes. To help develop these, tools such as established archetypes and recognisable plots can be extremely useful.
But is a technically good story enough? I’d argue not, especially when we are inundated by storytelling content vying for our attention, from snappy tweets to 30 second ad spots to epic movies and everything in between. And technical skills in storytelling isn’t enough for us as commercially-driven storytellers, ultimately looking to achieve the creative transaction that I’ve written about before.
To do our jobs well, I think we need to be thinking about telling stories that matter.
Stories that matter have meaning in the moment and beyond; they stand out, they have weight, they have value. Stories that matter draw people closer to others and to themselves; they have impact, they change us. It’s those stories which stand out from the crowd.
So, how do we go about this? Here are three quick tips.
1. Stories that matter make people care
Ok, I’ve borrowed this one from the wonderful Andrew Stanton, the writer behind the three Toy Story movies and the writer/director of WALL-E, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. In his fantastic TED talk on the subject, Andrew talks about how, at the beginning, stories need to deliver a promise, “like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot, propelling you from the start to the end”. At their heart, they need to capture a truth, and they need to “evoke wonder”. That’s how to make people care: promise something, capture something, provoke something.
2. Stories that matter are rooted in human experience
The most powerful stories capture the truth that Andrew Stanton talks about by being firmly based in the things we remember from the past, things we know from the present and what we hope for the future. They are rooted in human experience, preferably shared. There are several places we can find those powerful stories, then:
in the behaviours, values and instincts that are enduringly true of human.
in the macro social changes that have world-wide implications by identifying and exploring some of the big picture trends and large shifts in key areas of the global social landscape.
in the micro stories, theories or experiences that go against the ‘typical’ and find counter-narratives and alternative perspectives.
Whichever angle we take, and whether we look at our own lives or those of complete strangers in entirely different cultural and historical contexts, we need to find truth and authenticity as the starting point if we’re to tell stories that matter.
3. Stories that matter can be told in any medium
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that medium is irrelevant. Form and content are intrinsically linked. In stories that matter, the medium is another voice in the narrative – another character, if you like. To use two other analogies in one sentence: it sets the stage, helping to manage expectations, and it forms a prism through which the story can be seen and interpreted. In stories that matter, the form of that story really matters.
But at its heart, a story that matters should still be able to matter for the broadly the same reasons, whichever form it takes. Great stories are shapeshifters, they are the spirit of a truth or idea that can be embodied and made manifest in many physical ways. A powerful story has a clear core or essence, which is not dependent on the way it’s told. It should, at its heart, be a story that could be told in any creative artistic way (a painting, a stage show, a novel, a sculpture etc), we’re just happening to tell it the format of a TV show, a dance, a piece of fashion or a poem.
In the same way as marketers have done since the time of Don Draper with brands, if you can’t describe your story in once word or phrase in a way that doesn’t immediately give away its medium, then it’s questionable whether it can achieve ‘a story that matters’ status. In the same way that Coke is about happiness, Innocent is about goodness and Red Bull is about risk-taking and they happen to express these ideas in the form of soft drinks, so One Born Every Minute is about devotion, First Dates is about optimism and Gogglebox is about connections and they happen to express those ideas in the form of Channel 4 factual entertainment formats.
Stories have changed individuals lives and the entire course of human history. The great religions, the most impactful political movements, and the cultural references we all draw on in conversations and imagery to generate a sense of collective belonging have all drawn on them. But not just any stories. They have stood the test of time and had the impact they have had because they’ve been rooted in stories that matter which people care about, that are based in human experiences and which live on, outside of their form. Just as we all have it in us to be creative, I believe we all have it in us to be powerful storytellers.