Saturday, June 11, 2016

what IS story-telling anyway?

And why does it matter?

Giving your brand a story really matters. But what IS a story?

"[Stories] are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence… a way of being fully human.” 

- Susan Sontag

I went to LeBook's Connections event in New York City last week and there was an interesting panel on story-telling and advertising - or brand story-telling - which is all the buzz these days and so many people say that they are brand story-tellers or experts in story-telling.

What was interesting is that each person on the panel talked about story-telling in a different way and used it to mean something else. When I first came to advertising, almost no one (except for one really genius creative director I worked with) talked about story. It was funny because I came from the world of journalism, poetry and fiction-writing - fresh from not-quite-finishing an M.F.A. in creative writing, publishing a novel and Robert McKee's famous story structure class. All I really knew was the story. I was drawn to Olivier because instead of asking me to come up with concepts, he used to say, "Write me some stories." And instead of coming up with concepts, I came up with word pictures that evoked both emotion and familiarity as well as surprise and sensuality leaving you with a sense that there was more to come.

These "stories" - actually, tiny snapshots from a story because you had to fill in the beginning from your own memory and fill in the end from your imagination - became fragrances, jeans, drinks, fashion and beauty campaigns, some of which are still icons today.

But the real question is - how do stories work?

At the time, I was asked to make a document which listed the most crucial points for a fragrance or fashion campaign. So what I wrote (because story-telling was not a thing then) was this list.


Here's what I mean: A great ad communication - any lasting piece of art work - makes you FEEL something. If it can tap into a universal emotion - love, loss, pain, jealousy, abandonment, security, serenity, euphoria - it will last long beyond its life as a brand messaging. Think about the famous Coca-cola advertising - I'd like to build the world a home - or the Benetton AIDS campaigns. They can still give you goosebumps or bring you to tears. In fact, to do that, the image or communication doesn't even need to be beautiful. It needs to work harder than just giving you something nice to look at. Eye-candy is delicious, but like all candies, you forget it as soon as you're finished with it. Have too much and it makes you feel sick. The image in itself isn't as important as the story that the brand lets you tell yourself. But then, even if you can evoke an emotion - how do you make it last?


All great stories - from the first stories ever told - begin with archetypes: the mother, the sister, the friend, the father figure, the brother, the lover. It sounds intellectual but what it means is the familiar. A great piece of communication leverages something you already know. As McKee's story structure explains, you open with something ordinary, you set up an every day logic that everyone can relate to. The alarm clock (the voice of authority - or your mother), the kitchen or sofa (the sense of home), the piece of music that opens with something that sounds vaguely like something else. When you use an icon or an archetype, you save time because your audience fills in the details. They add their own emotion and story to yours - that means that they invest something of themselves in it - so the story becomes theirs, too. When you invest in something - take part ownership of it - you like it even more. That's a song that keeps playing over and over in your head.


Because a beautiful - composition-wise - image is not enough without resonance. That's where story comes in. When I worked on ad-cepts - "pretend" ads that one makes for a client using existing images for inspiration, I used to like to use "swipe" (the images) that came from movie stills. I liked them better than simple fashion editorial because there was a sense of story inherent in each image. You looked at them and you had a sense that there was something that came before and something that came after. Maybe you'd even already seen the movie so the image had even more to it. It's what makes Cindy Sherman's images so compelling. Because you recognize a story - there is something familiar, there is something archetypal, there is something before and after that you can fill in, and there is something surprising that makes you want to look at it again.

The other thing about resonance is that there is something in the image that connects with some part of you. You recognize something of yourself in it - that's how you know the brand is talking to you.  Or your tribe. If the story doesn't resonate with you - I'm not a corporate businesswoman, for instance - I know that the brand isn't speaking to me. But, when I have to go to job interview, I know the brand to go to for my outfit or make-up or bag. That's why resonance is important - you don't need to be all things to all people. Your story needs to be clear about ONE thing - so that it creates lasting resonance.


Which bring us to coherence. If your story is about business, you need a really good reason to switch to a story about swimming, let's say, or amusement parks. Your story has to ring true. When you write a novel or a play, you know your characters inside and out. Even when you start with a character who is 25, you know what her childhood was like and what kind of student she was in preschool. You also know what she would never do. And if you make her do it anyway, she'd better have a really good reason and you will have to slowly lead your audience there, or you will lose everyone. So your brand or your product needs a really good reason to switch tracks.


This is really the thing that makes the song keep playing in your head. This is what story structure says carries the story forwards. It's all that stuff that feels familiar, that path or people you know intuitively, you understand innately and that - we as story-tellers - take somewhere else. That surprise makes you want to explore the end of the story. You want it to keep going. You keep playing it again and again in your mind. That's why little kids watch movies again and again. On the other hand, it's not a huge crazy ridiculous surprise - for instance, imagine a folk song that morphs into heavy metal - (look at coherence) but it's still unexpected.

Often - especially in fashion or beauty, which is image-driven advertising - a visual idea on its own is not enough to give it resonance and emotion, it needs the right words. The words add a layer of complexity which make the story deeper and more resonant.

But back to the first question - everyone is telling you about being a story-teller (and honestly, lots of them have no idea what they are talking about) - why does it matter?

A story connects with the viewers as humans. A real story elevates and values our experiences, helps us see them differently. 

A story gives your brand or product a narrative context to exist in.

A brand or a product with no story, no history to ignite, leaves a consumer confused. Or worse, uninterested. And that is a bad place for them to be. It's almost as if your product exists in limbo.

Today, we are so inundated with advertising and communication that without a good story - one that really connects with us but also feels new as well as familiar, believable as well as surprising, compelling as well as intriguing - a brand will not be able to hold your interest longer than it takes you to turn a page, swipe left, or click onwards.

That's where story comes in. Because with a sense of story or history - one that connects with you in some way, the communication is not just a picture or words, it is something that becomes a part of you.

Want to help build connection with your audience? Make sure that you tell stories. Really tell stories.

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