In defense of storytelling.


Hey, have you seen this pretty awesome vid from Stefan Sagmeister? If not, do yourself a favor and watch it. (It is short and amusing — if there’s anything funnier than accented cursing, I haven’t yet discovered it.)

Okay, clearly there’s some hyperbole going on here, but the man’s got a point. Not everyone needs to be a storyteller, and not everything needs to be telling a story. That’s even sometimes true with the written word, that least sexy of website elements. Help centers, tech specs, lists of unambiguous information that mustn’t be misunderstood — not great places for storytelling.

But elsewhere, storytelling is both ubiquitous and beneficial.

That’s because there’s usually only one kind of “story” we’re interested in telling people — and it’s the sort that ends with that person doing The Thing We Want Them To Do (buy this widget, share this story, start-kick this Kickstarter, etc). It’s a bit like a fable; only instead of warning people about the strangers from the next valley over, you’re trying to convince them that if they don’t get this web gizmo they’ll be kidnapped by a Best Practices Wizard.

The problem is, people are really sensitive to this sort of “storytelling.” Everywhere we go, someone is trying to paint us a certain way — to re-contextualize what we know about ourselves into a shape more receptive to their sales pitch. The key is to tell people the story they want to hear, not the story you want them to hear.

Consider the infomercial — that black and white footage of people just like you, struggling to cook a meatball evenly, hammer a nail straight in, or carry three bags of groceries and a baby. “This is you,” they’re saying. “You’re totally screwing up. But with only three easy payments of $12.99, you won’t be a screw-up anymore!”

Oh my gosh, you're so bad at this. ... Now buy our thing!

Oh my gosh, you’re so bad at this. … Now buy our thing!

This is negative storytelling: fear-based marketing. It sucks and nobody wants to listen to it. Sure, it works sometimes, but it’s a very weak sauce indeed; it’s all or nothing. If you’ve already got that problem solved, case closed — the Baby Carrier 9000 Deluxe is irrelevant. Even worse, savvy listeners will tune it out completely — you might even lose someone who actually wanted to buy in from the get-go.

We don’t want to be told that we’re failures, and when someone constructs a story for that purposes, it’s obnoxious.

The correct way to use storytelling is to build up your audience. Check out this campaign for the iPhone 5S. “You’re more powerful than you think.” Son of a gun, that’s slick. Watch the video, too, because it’s equally effective.

The iPhone campaign is unambiguously telling a story, but it’s doing it in a positive way. “Parenthood is tricky and crazy, but you’ve got it covered. And your iPhone is right there with you, buddy.” To put it into fable terms, it’s a story about a simple peasant who uses friendship and cunning to outwit a monster — not about two overly trusting travelers who get gobbled up for their naivete.

Remember when I said storytelling was essential? Imagine that page without the storytelling elements — it would basically be a list of parent-friendly features and some nice pictures. OK, maybe that will sell some phones — but it wouldn’t sell Apple-levels of phones. It wouldn’t leave a lasting impression. And the moment those features change, it’s back to the drawing board. But that page and that video will probably be just as effective in four years as they are today — the storytelling is what makes the content work and what gives it lasting value.

And it never gets negative — remember, the logline at the top isn’t “Never be overwhelmed by parenting ever again.” It’s “You’re more powerful than you think.” That’s a story people want to hear. (It also works the product into the narrative in a way that’s not immediately obnoxious — those are all pretty reasonable ways for people to be using their iPhones, and nobody once stops and says “SIRI, FIND MY LOST DOG.”)

That’s the sort of story you should be striving to tell as a brand — the sort that acknowledges your audience’s strengths, then shows how your product fits into them, and how you can go forth and do stuff together.

Whether you go off and put “Storyteller” on your resume afterwards is up to you.