What Is This Storytelling You Talk Of?

By November 2nd, 2015


An abject body sits alone, hunched over his keyboard, rattling out yet another listicle. The keys chatter, slightly loose from their fittings after years of digital abuse.

The pixels flicker, lighting up one character at a time. 10 Things You Totally Didn’t Know About Translation reads the title. The cursor blinks at the end of the line.


The cracked backspace needs hammered before it does its job.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

The headline disappears, replaced by a blank screen and the blinking of the cursor. A mocking vertical line. Blink. No one likes your content. Blink. No one reads your content. Blink. You’re wasting your life. Blink.

No one had called the agency in weeks. No new clients had signed up in months. The coffers were running dry.

No, that’s not true. The coffers had run dry a fortnight ago, it was the credit cards that were running dry now.

The keys rattled again, threatening to give up at any moment.

5 Language Learning Hacks You Simply Must Know.

He’d written that article before. It had gotten two retweets on Twitter and a handful of likes on Facebook. That was the turning point, he has thought. That was the point where his content strategy would dig in its heels and pull him out of the red and into the black.

The phones had stayed silent though. His inbox regularly pinged but he had long stopped sifting through the mountain of spam.

Something he was doing was wrong. Something in those tricky strings of consonants and vowels was missing.

It was just a matter of working out what.

Facts Tell But Stories Sell

Our unnamed and fictitious marketer is hardly unique in any industry. Countless writers pump out article after after of pure distilled information. Some articles are good and offer genuinely valuable information. Others are bad and serve up rehashed points already covered in countless other blogs.

What they have in common, however, is the lack of a driving narrative. A lack of story and thus a lack of emotion.

It’s hardly surprising then that readers struggle to relate to and engage with the content.

Have you ever heard of the Significant Objects Project?

This part-psychology, part-literary experiment was run by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn to see whether stories can influence the value consumers place on objects.

Specifically they wanted to see whether they could artificially increase the price of meaningless bric-a-brac by attaching a story to it.

The pair began collecting assorted objects from local thrift stores – shot glasses, china figurines, toys and the like – none of which cost more than a few dollars. They assigned each item to a writer, had them craft a personal story around it and listed them for sale on eBay.

This particularly hideous horse bust is one of the objects they sold.


Horse Bust from the Significant Objects project

The opening segment for the description of the horse bust reads:

My father was more or less a garden variety drunk. He got neither mean nor gloomy when he’d had a lot of wine, just generally loose followed by a major case of the sleepies. When he and Mom first met, during a year abroad at the Sorbonne in the early ‘70s, she found his habit of heavy drinking adorable. She liked the way he was often confused and befuddled. Like Mr. Magoo, she said. Like a guy who steps out of the way of a falling piano because he just noticed a cigarette butt in a flower pot. It was pretty sweet. But who falls in love in Paris in the ‘70s and isn’t in some way completely amazing?

The description goes on to narrate the story of the seller’s parents and the borderline-sociopathic hazing rituals they endured as exchange students in Paris during the 1970s.

The narrative draws you in, feeds you their lives and allows you to experience the exhilarating events alongside them.

The horse bust cost Rob and Joshua a grand total of 99 cents. It sold on eBay for $62.95.

All of the items in the project sold with a similar increase in price, netting the project over $3,000 when all was said and sold.

While the Significant Objects Project deals in physical objects, the message is the same: information is not enough. Facts tell but stories sell.

Literary heavyweight Philip Pullman – admittedly not the most likely guest on a digital marketing blog – sums it up beautifully:

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.

Precisely, Philip! That list does not go nourishment, shelter, companionship, helpful information. It goes nourishment, shelter, companionship, stories.

We want ups and downs and heroes and villains. We want to experience challenges and share elation.

Monkey Brains And Mirrors

While we like to think that humans are some sort of highfalutin folk floating above the realm of lesser beasts, when alls said and done, we’re really just a bunch of monkeys.

So to understand why we like stories, let’s look at some monkey brains.

Back in the 1990s, Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti stuck electrodes into the grey matter of Macaque monkeys and watched which bits of their brains lit up under certain conditions.

Midway through the project, as one of the researchers was reaching for his lunch, the monkey brain monitor suddenly glowed. It showed activity in the ventral premotor cortex, the bit of the brain in charge of moving and doing.

However, the monkey hadn’t actually gone anywhere. He was still there, eyes glued to the researcher’s hand as he moved it towards a big juicy panini stuffed with pesto, mozzarella and the finest pastrami.

All the brain activity of doing something without actually doing it.

Rizzolatti went on to show that when his Macaque monkeys were watching something they didn’t predict the actions using logical thought, they felt them using newly discovered mirror neurons.

As big hairless monkeys, humans work in the same way.

Uri Hassen’s study at Princeton replaced Rizzolatti’s Macaques with humans and exchanged the electrodes for an fMRI machine. We’re quite glad he made the second change.

One of the participants was designated the speaker and the other the listener. The speaker would narrate a story to the listener while Uri and his researchers watched the scans of their brains.

The results showed that not only did all of the listeners show similar brain activity during the story, the speaker and the listeners had very similar brain activity despite the fact that one person was producing language and the others were comprehending it.

Even though one person is telling and the other is listening, they feel the same thing.

So if I tell you a heartbreaking story about fighting to the front of a bakery queue only to find out that the last pan au chocolat went to the person in front of me, you feel that story alongside me.

You feel your arms pushing punters aside. You feel the mouth-watering smell of perfectly crisp puff pastry drift up your nose. You anticipate the feeling of chocolate gently melting in your mouth. And you feel the heart-shrinking disappointment when the baker shakes his head.

May Contain Stories

Storytelling, as often happens with popular marketing approaches, is disregarded by many as yet another marketing buzzword. It’s just a fancy way of saying content marketing or so they’ll say.

To illustrate why this isn’t the case let’s look at two global brands at the forefront of very different industries: MailChimp and Johnnie Walker.

MailChimp works hard to promote their identity and services through a diverse content strategy. Whether it’s How To guides, blogs or videos, all the content they produce is very informative and sells their services well.

MailChimp at Work, a video series in which they show their email marketing service working with real customers, seems like the perfect platform to break out some juicy stories.

However, they simply aren’t there.

For around five minutes, floating heads explain how MailChimp’s service fits into various interconnected parts of their business. And that’s great. It let’s me see the service in action and proves that it works with real life companies. But it doesn’t engage me like a story would.

Ten minutes after watching a video on Minnesota’s Walker Art Centre and I can’t remember a single thing that happened in the video.

The Walker Art Centre was opened in 1927 and just celebrated its 75th year as a public art centre. It’s classed as one of the Big Five modern art museums in the States. It doubled in size during a 2005 expansion. Half a million visitors pass through its doors every single year.

It must have stories, it simply must do. But they choose not to use them.

Johnnie Walker, however, is the quintessential storyteller, the raconteur, the guy who holds court all night, the chap who talks all night but doesn’t annoy anyone because he’s so engaging.

Their iconic advert – The Man Who Walked Around the World – sees Robert Carlyle powering through a particularly atmospheric Scottish moor, both narrator and actor in the story of John ‘Johnnie’ Walker.

Now a household name and flagship brand in the arsenal of booze conglomerate Diageo, the advert plays on the whisky’s humble origins in rural Scottish.

The son of a farmer, John escapes the fields, sets up a grocer and launches his eponymous whisky. As the story rolls on, you enjoy the trials, tribulations and successes of the business. Share the ingenuity of blended malt and watch with pride as you see the Johnnie Walker name emblazoned on the rear wing of a Formula One car.

By the time the credit roll, you’re no longer buying a bottle of whisky, you’re buying a story that stretches back to 200 years to a small Scottish farm nestled in the misty Ayrshire hills.

That is storytelling.

* Lead image adapted from Any.colour.you.like

About the Author:

David is the senior copywriter at Scottish digital agency Digital Impact. He works with clients to define their brand voice, craft compelling content and tighten up their on-site copy.

Digital Impact

What Is This Storytelling You Talk Of?
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