Pros and Cons of the Storytelling Epidemic

“I am just a poor boy thought my story’s seldom told” — The Boxer, Simon & Garfunkel

Photo by Reuben Juarez on Unsplash

If you’re in marketing and advertising, you can’t help but to have noticed how big the word “storytelling” has become. It’s almost as if it were the word of the year.

There’s no question stories have power. Stories connect with people. And you’ve got to admit that reading the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis is far more interesting than reading all those lists in the Book of Leviticus.

Public domain.

In the marketing world you might even find people who say that without a good story you can’t succeed.

This is one of the reasons so many marketers love the new opportunities generated by social media. You get verbal stories, video stories, visual stories (Infographics) and personal stories. It’s in your face everywhere you look these. In fact, “Stories” is the latest technique Facebook is using to keep people engaged. It’s not enough to tell stories on your Wall. Now you can almost effortlessly keep “adding” to “your story” in that Stories box.

This past week I brought home a book from the library called The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose. I picked it up because the cover design looked interesting and the title intriguing. When I got home I noticed the subtitle: How the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the way we tell stories.

The prologue begins by noting how anthropologists have observed that storytelling is a fundamental part of being human. He writes, “Just as the brain perceives patterns in the visual forms of nature — a face, a figure, a flower — and in sound, so it detects patterns in sound.”

Then he goes on to share the results of a 1944 study in which 34 college students were shown a short film and asked what was happening. Essentially it was two triangles and a circle moving on a two dimensional surface. There was also a stationary rectangle partially open on one side.

What was striking is how nearly every student began creating a narrative about what they imagined was going on. Two men fighting for a woman? All kinds of storylines emerged, including the emotions of these “characters.”

How strange.

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Public domain

So it is that our brain is constantly connecting dots to create narratives.

Another book that I brought home from the library this week is also about stories. It’s titled Republic of Lies by Anna Merlan. The subtitle is American Conspiracy Theories and Their Surprising Rise To Power.

The Amazon blurb calls it “riveting tour through the landscape and meaning of modern conspiracy theories, exploring the causes and tenacity of this American malady, from Birthers to Pizzagate and beyond.”

I’ve only just started this one, but the Prologue certainly sets you up to want to read more. Author Anna Merlan begins by telling readers about a Caribbean cruise she went on. The ship’s passengers were all members of various conspiracy groups. Because she was not a member of a conspiracy group, some passengers thought she was possibly FBI. Once an idea like that gets planted, it can be hard to dislodge.

Three quarters of the reviews are 5 star, but the one star reviewers are out there, one calling it nothing more than a a rant.

I only mention the book because of the previous illustration above which shows how our minds create stories. How many conspiracy theories are based on connections between events and how many are simply a mental construct in which disparate pieces seem to fit the story?

I think of the constellations in our night sky. Here’s a cluster of stars, three of them serving to be the belt, and very lightly a knife sheath. At some point in human history he was given a name, The Hunter, or Orion. There are several stories about Orion in Greek Mythology. How this batch of stars came to be a basket of stories is itself quite intriguing. So it is that the night sky is filled with stories. (You can read more about Orion here .)

The trigger for this blog post, though, was a blog post by Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman. Hoffman acknowledges the power of stories, noting that a good story is memorable. What concerns him, however, is when marketing decisions are made on anecdotal evidence instead of actual data.

That’s a point directed toward the marketing pros in my audience. Check out Bob Hoffman’s The Danger In Storytelling .

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And with that, I bid adieu.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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