Watch: The Danger of Simple Stories

In his TedX talk, economist Tyler Cowen delivers some great insights into the dangers of telling simple stories.

While acknowledging that “to think in terms of stories is entirely human”, Cowen also claims, though not without irony, that every time you tell yourself a simple story “you are lowering your IQ”. That’s of course a too simple story in itself, but I agree that in storytelling it is important to look out for the risk of losing complexity.


Tell stories to make them listen

One of the things I am working on right now is to help create engaging and interesting presentations for a CPWF event later this year. As part of the preparations, I was asked to write a blog post on why it’s worthwhile to introduce storytelling into a research program:

“My brother used to hate school. He didn’t fit the bill for quietly sitting down to listen, and he was always really bored in class. He would much rather run into the woods to chase insects or search for not-so-ripe plumps. As he started middle school, the fights with his teachers got worse, and his grades started to drop.

Until the day a new history professor arrived at our small village school. My brother braced himself for more yawn-inducing classes. But, the historian turned out to be a world-class storyteller, who painted vivid images of kings and queens, revolutions and political intrigues, and who had my brother and his classmates fighting out battles with wooden swords. The stories this teacher told made my brother listen.”

…read the rest of this post on CPWF’s website

Show, don’t tell

One of the universal principles of storytelling is to show, rather than tell, your listeners what it is you have to say. It seems counter-intuitive that in storytelling you’re not supposed to “tell”, but rather “show” your listeners. However, one of the main strengths of a good story is its ability to transport your listeners to a new setting, mood, or mindset: to show them what it is really like.

I came across the ad below on last week, and, as they note, it’s a good example of this principle applied in marketing. The ad takes us through a regular day of a regular person: Jeff. Jeff is, however, also a blind person. Rather than telling us that “it is more difficult for a blind person to navigate traffic than it is for person with perfect vision,” this ad shows us what it is like for Jeff to commute to work. The story — because it’s told from Jeff’s perspective – puts us into his shoes and allows us to experience his reality for ourselves.

The key of showing, rather than telling, also lies with the details: the “sound shadows”, the explanations of how to know when to cross the street, how it gets so much harder to hear traffic in rain are the details that make Jeff’s reality real – to us.

This is also why it resonates when Jeff says “I think television is part of society, right? It’s where we get our information from. It’s where we get our entertainment from. And being able to access that medium on par with everybody else in society is fantastic.” We fully sympathize with his endorsement of the products that the ad is promoting: full-text spoken-word versions of articles and voiced descriptions of action happening on TV.

This aspect of storytelling — to allow your listeners to experience for themselves, rather than just to tell them what it’s like – is naturally one of the reasons why storytelling is such a persuasive tool. What you are able to experience for yourself, even when it’s just through a story, is more real and believable than anything you’re told.

Why We Respond to Stories

Do you know the feeling of “but that’s what I’ve been saying all along, why did it take you guys so long to get it”?

I bet Jeremy Hsu, who wrote an article for the Scientific American on “Why We Love a Good Yarn” in 2008, feels that way. Judging from recent business book titles – such as Tell to Win and The Dragonfly Effect – my google alerts on “storytelling”, and Twitter’s #storytelling hash tag, you could almost get the impression that the power of storytelling is a brand-new, recently discovered miracle. Though really, it has been around for a while.

While I may have to let up on the storytelling-obsessed posts soon, I think it’s worth spending a few minutes on Hsu’s article. He, unlike most others, dives a little deeper into why it is that we all respond so positively to stories.

He argues that storytelling is a universal human trait that has always served as a way to practice, form, and strengthen social relationships between people. We, as human beings, have learned how to interact with each other, how to show empathy and interpret emotions, through stories. In fact, Hsu says, scientists are beginning to agree that

“Stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition.”

However, Hsu doesn’t get much further into the details of these cognitive aspects of storytelling. If you want to continue to explore the subject I recommend turning to Austrian-born Monika Fludernik, who is a professor of English literature and culture at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg, Germany. Her research is academic (and perhaps only for nerds). In 1996, she wrote Towards a Natural Narratology wherein she precisely approaches narratology, storytelling, as cognition. She reasons that stories are meaningful because listeners will connect the stories they hear to life experiences:

“Unlike the traditional models of narratology, narrativity […] is here constituted by what I call experientiality, namely the quasi-mimetic evocation of ‘real life experience’.” (Fludernik, 1996).

In essence, Fludernik supports the view that Hsu is highlighting: Storytelling is tightly connected to human cognition and the way in which we think about the world.

The practically applicable conclusion from Hsu’s writing is, of course, this:

“[S]tories have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy.”

It is no coincidence that marketers, advertisers, managers, and so many others have success with using storytelling in their communication – even if they are just beginning to discover this. It will continue to be true that we as people are preconditioned to respond to storytelling, to feel persuaded, motivated, and to change.

Periodic Table of Storytelling

I stumbled over this on Twitter a few days ago, but I actually think it deserves a bit more than the 140 characters I gave it then.

This table, put together by ComputerSherpa, is pretty ingenious (and fun to explore). It’s a collection of tropes that can be combined in a great number of ways to describe different kinds of stories.

Clearly, this was put together using a good deal of humor. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to point out that this table, as well as any other narrative model, only has descriptive, not formative, value. There is no finite number of ways to construct a narrative.

Storytelling is a complex and ever-evolving form that cannot be reduced to dogmas. I used to call it “the pancake approach” when people would assume that it is possible to come up with some sort of recipe for stories — recipes that would list a certain combination of “ingredients” (tropes) that when combined would surely produce stories — in the same way as following a recipe for pancakes will surely give you pancakes.

Historically we know, of course, that this is not true: The narrative form has always been evolving, and what we consider a story today was not considered a story a hundred years ago. Hence, it is impossible for any static model to grasp the non-static narrative form.

However, I do believe that the ongoing evolution of the narrative form feeds off of any presently existing tradition. It is by contrasting what is, and what has been, that new – intriguing — forms of storytelling develop. It may be the true value of the periodic table of storytelling, and other narrative models, that they provide the necessary contraposition for new kinds of stories to develop.

Chatroulette Love Song: Viral Video — uR doin it Rite

Rune Iversen is a Danish guy who recently wrote a thesis on viral videos. After submitting his work, he decided to test if he could produce a successful viral video himself, using the principles he outlined in his thesis. He started working with a friend, Jeppe Vejs, and together they wrote the Chatroulette Love Song.

Indeed they were successful in producing a viral video. In just these past two days, the video was viewed almost 800,000 times on Youtube.

In an interview, Rune says that it took two and half months of preparations before shooting the video. It’s filmed in just one shot, and the set-up is completely genuine: The girl randomly came up on Chatroulette, and off they went.

The secret to making a successful viral video? “Make something that gives people a story that they feel. Make people happy, make sure your content is good,” Rune says.

It’s great to see people use the power of story in such a successful way. I’m pretty sure that marketers around the world will be going bananas for these guys’ talent.

Tell Stories and Raise Funds — storytelling applied for non-profits

It is the sense of connection between you and a certain cause that makes you donate to that cause. At least that’s a long-standing premise of non-profit fundraising., a young Seattle-based non-profit, is using a very personal and tangible form of storytelling to establish the connection between donors and benefactors; effectively making more funding available for life-saving programs.

FastCompany featured their site this week and explained how it works:

Aminata with her new bike -- read the story on SeeYourImpact.

“The model is simple–a donor logs onto the SeeYourImpact website, chooses what type of gift to send–be it a water pump, malaria bed net, wheelchair, or bicycle–and within two weeks the donor receives a brief write-up and photograph capturing the moment the recipient received the gift. And it’s the simplicity, the reward, and the cost–gifts on average range from $10 to $30–that is helping word spread about the non-profit.”

SeeYourImpact has a number of personal stories from past beneficiaries available on their site. Strictly speaking, the write-ups are rather little personal updates rather than actual stories. Still, it seems obvious that hearing from the one person you had an impact on, and seeing their photo, helps establish the personal connection that is crucial for charity giving.

Goetsch, the organization’s Communications Director, mentions exactly this connection as what is missing in modern philanthropy:

“Non-profits have found that breaking development down into tangible concepts engages people. But they haven’t harnessed the power of connecting every donor to their specific impact. The feedback on impact, the personal connection–these are missing in philanthropy today.”

The other advantage of these little impact stories is that they are pieces of powerful, compelling content, which can be easily shared online. Furthermore, if we imagine that more energy was put into refining each story, personal stories like these could also go viral and create enormous attention for a cause online.

However, I won’t fail to mention that while this model seems ingenious, especially because SeeYourImpact promises that 100% of your donation will go to the people in need and none to cover the organization’s overhead cost, there’s a potential ethical concern here. Are these stories too personal? Is the connection between donor and beneficiary too immediate?

There is a fine line there, between the end justifying the means and preserving the integrity and privacy of the people in need. I was happy to see that SeeYourImpact has given thought to this and prohibits contact between donor and beneficiary without the organization’s involvement, and that they reserve the right to change the names of children under the age of 18.

Once precautions like these are in place, using personal impact stories in fundraising will be a very powerful way to connect with donors.

Every impact-creating organization will have compelling stories to tell; it’s only a matter of beginning to tell them.

Seven Deadly Sins of Business Storytelling

OpenForum just posted another excerpt from Aaker and Smith’s The Dragonfly Effect.

They highlight, and rightly so, that while business storytelling often has a different purpose than a story told at a dinner party (or a story in Hollywood movie, or in a children’s book, or in a ballet, or…) the same storytelling principles apply in a business context.

The key is, really, that if you can crack the code and understand how these principles work, you’ll have a very effective marketing tool.

The seven sins (I slightly omitted OpenForum’s version):

  1. Telling a story chronologically: There needs to be more of a tension in a good story, rather than “first this happened, then this, then this, then this…”.
  2. Only telling: Show your audience and make the story come alive to your audience.
  3. Jargon: Refrain from using words only you understand.
  4. Pulse-free stories: Personalize the story, and tell stories about people.
  5. Fabrication: Don’t make something up; you’ll lose credibility.
  6. Bulletproof: Include conflict and vulnerability in your story, and you’ll gain authenticity.
  7. Proprietary: Don’t put ownership on corporate stories. Let them live and get shared.

I especially appreciate Aaker and Smith’s encouragement to follow the example of Apple, Nike, and Ebay and create corporate story banks, where stories that support the organization’s work can be stored and shared.

While Apple, Nike and Ebay may be frontrunners in the field, I personally just spent the better part of a year gathering and sharing personal stories for a social enterprise that works in Cambodia and Laos. Some of these stories can be seen on the DDD blog, for example here and here.

Big, commercial corporations can of course have good stories to tell, but in my experience the potential for good stories rise significantly when dealing with an impact generating organization. Sharing the personal stories of beneficiaries is a great way to connect to donors, funders and partners, and they leave a long-lasting impression.