Hi everyone. My name’s James and I want to talk about stories for a bit. Don’t worry, it shouldn’t take more than about fifteen minutes but you may find this more enjoyable with a cup of tea or your preferred hot drink. I’m having earl grey. If you’re ready, let’s begin.
There’s a strange kind of tension at work at the moment in advertising – it’s very fashionable to talk about a crisis of falling attention. But that doesn’t sound right - people have never consumed as much media as they do now. Undoubtedly, there are many of you right now who have this presentation up in one tab, but are actually looking at another tab full of emails, or news, or twitter – if that’s you, that’s absolutely fine. I get that’s the way things are between us. So we have a greater claim to people’s conscious lives than ever before – the problem is that with that, people’s emotional filters have been set tighter and tighter. We don’t have a crisis of attention, we have a crisis of caring. So I’ve been wondering recently – what do I care about?
Well, a couple of months ago, I got a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird in the post With a postcard in it saying “Dear James, I hope you enjoy this – it made me cry! Love, Mum”
And that’s kind of a strange gesture to make. Like sending someone a quiche with a card that says “I hope you enjoy this – it made me vomit!” So I called her up. “Mum, why have you sent me To Kill A Mockingbird, America’s favourite race parable, if it made you upset?” And she said “well, James, that’s a good question. Don’t they pay you to work out stuff like that?” So I thought about it, and it is strange. Somebody has to spend serious time to read a book – ten hours, maybe twenty – and when they finish, they don’t unlock an achievement badge,
Not yet, anyway. Books are potentially the worst value-over-time equation you can get in modern society, and they can leave you feeling bad. From a strictly practical perspective, stories shouldn’t really ‘work’. And yet they do. Which is weird. And useful - because as marketeers, we’re in the business of making people feel things they didn’t predict. Of making people care about the things we care about. So this is what I believe.
Stories are what make people care. A good story engenders commitment to see it through to the bitter end. When we tell someone a story it’s to divert people’s course of emotions and make them come with us for a bit. So, tabbed browsing people, listen up: if you literally forget everything else I say, then this is the point I want to make: We need people to care, and stories are what make people care. But that’s a fairly glib statement, I know. So what I want to do today is go through the mechanics of good story. I’m not saying that we should all be writing stories, but I am saying that stories encapsulate the best of engagement practice, and that looking at what they do right can help us craft something with the same degree of pull. So, what can we use from Story to make people start caring again?
Well, most stories start out as a product, not a way of selling a product. They have to have intrinsic value.
“Will people like it” Immediately focuses your creative product around value creation – and in doing that, your ‘text’ becomes really socially responsive.
A well-crafted story takes the most sensitive desires of its audience, repackages them as fiction, and sells it back to them. Peter Pan literally crystallises the idea of youthful freedom at a time when childhood was a fledgling, fragile institution under threat by the likes of child labour, industrialisation, and invasive schooling.
A quirk of values based comunication is that over time, work starts repeating. Penny Dreadfuls don’t exist any more, but the story’s still there
It’s just found a new medium.And that’s great! Because the outcome of that is that your work isn’t just integrated with a campaign, but with the stories and values of wider society.
Stories tap into this ongoing value conversation, because stories are how we construct values. So the modern brand stories work, powerfully, because they’re not new. Not many people have read the Homeric epics – I did Classics at uni but I’m not bitter or anything – because everyone understands their themes, because they have modern brand expressions:
And if we’re in the business of trying to say a lot of big things very quickly, it helps to have storied worlds to tap into.
But let’s caveat the idea of value. When I say value, I don’t mean ‘good things happening’ – and that’s the trap advertising seems to keep falling into. It is, of course, established practice that a good way to get someone’s attention is to show them something they want.
And that’s worked rather well for us because people will never run out of things to want and we can usually find a new way of presenting them. But when we do this, and present what George Leonard calls
Endless Climaxes, it’s actually out of touch with any sense of dramatic narrative that people want their lives to have. We call it aspirational in meetings, but in real life it comes across as tauntingly unrealistic.
And, it’s not even the interesting part of a story. This is the interesting part:
The trough. The moment of despair when your protagonist is in a desperate situation and tries something that might not work at all. So with that in mind:
Okay, I want to borrow something from Kurt Vonnegut. Imagine you could plot any person’s life on an axis between fortune and misfortune, over time. Most people’s lives, in this room, are something like this: we start above average, because we’re in the West, of course, childhood is alright, adolescance yeah, things go a bit wobbly et cetera and if you’re lucky you end up ever so slightly higher than where you started, that seems to be the goal, right? Fine.
Your common advertising doesn’t reflect this at all. It usually starts off up here – nobody wants to see an ugly person, after all - and pootles along, and then at the point where protagonist meets product, it shoots into the stratosphere. Now, this is a fairly distorted view of the world and people see that disconnect and discount it as fantasy, so they don’t care. If anything, people are more likely to believe real fiction!
Okay guys, I want each of you to think of your favourite story. Hold it in your minds. In that story, the plot is inevitably driven by the fortune/misfortune dynamic. Our lives are, too, but a story blows that up into exciting proportions. You can start here or here – you would think that happy stories start up here but it’s not necessarily so because being down here allows for more dynamic changes of state. It’s the changes of state that are interesting. So hero is introduced to a wider world or some sort of profound experience – in that way, they do have a kind of product discovery –, so Luke Skywalker discovers what it means to be a jedi. Cinderella goes to the ball, Neo finds out he’s in the matrix, that sort of thing. But then the hook of the story is that crisis point, where everything goes wrong, down here. And it’s not because we like seeing someone in trouble – it’s because it’s interesting and applies to our lives. We all have that experience of being in ‘the trough’ – sometimes in an equally catastrophic way but more often that not, in the form of missing the bus or something. And to see life’s dynamic brought to entertainment, that’s nice, its an act of empathy by the author. It’s comforting and uplifting to watch the hero pull themselves out of the trough, because we can see ourselves in them and like to think we would do that, and so we can celebrate with them when they come out better than they started, active supporters rather than passive observers of someone else doing well. We can get people to start caring again.
Now, advertising often shies away from a fortune arc and that’s presumably because we think people can’t handle the trough, that it’s not an association we want to cultivate for people. But a lot of good advertising will work the full fortune range. Consider Guiness Surfer. An everyman waits for something, we get to see him in his role as surfer, brilliant. Oh no! It’s actually quite hard, and a lot of his friends fail, now we’re worried.
But through his absolutely inspiring determination, through sheer will which is focused into a couple of frames, he does do it. We see the moment of victory, we see the new social plateau. We see the product, and why not? It’s thematically linked into the story. All the best properties have a fortune arc built in. The X-factor is singing competition with fortune arc overlaid, and people lap it up.
Of course, there is a dose of something else that makes the climb out of the trough all the more delicious to the viewer, and all the intimidating to the advertiser and the brand. The fact that hey, they just might not make it.
We live uncertain lives, and we want to see that reflected in our media – 8/10 of the most-watched shows this year were live broadcasts. The problem is that most brands want to project a world of certainty, and this goes back to earliest brand theory - Paul Feldwick said something like
Brands are a promise, at their heart. They’re meant displace the risk inherent in any purchase. So how does a brand place itself as a rock of certainty, but in an uncertain and suspenseful world? Witness the greatest drama in advertising history.
The Nescafe Gold Blend Couple. A tale of smarmy, unfulfilled romance that kept the nation going for about ten years with very simple narrative ingredients:
Presumably some sort of antagonist. And the classic question:
And when they finally did, in 1989’s the kiss,
Half the country saw it. So 30 million people watched two people kissing. But they weren’t watching the kiss! They were watching the resolution to a grand epic narrative. If we made this today, we’d have them kiss in the first ad, wouldn’t we? But this gave us time to connect with the characters. I remember this! And if you look back, the product was always there, maybe it wasn’t the hero but so what? It’s not the hero in real life. But it was the facilitator, the widget – as it would be IN REAL LIFE! Lovely stuff.
As a young person I’m technically supposed to talk about the internet wherever I go, so er, that’s this bit. All the things I’ve just mentioned are great because their relevance pulls people into the story world, right? New media and new ways of thinking have provided another way of bringing people in; that’s by giving them a sense of agency in the events. Or to put it another way, the choose your own adventure.
Those were the books that went If you want to walk down the corridor turn to page 43. Page 43, a dragon eats you and you die. I loved them as a kid.
Does the deliberately shot and written nature of an advert preclude this idea? Not necessarily, if for example set up a scene and ask people to work on the resolution. BTs Family advert series, Kris Marshall and Esther Hall, has all the hallmarks of decent story, enough to get people seriously involved.
And with the most recent piece in the series, they went straight for the suspense and the sense of agency. They ended an advert with Esther Hall looking rather flushed and rubbing her tummy and asked us, the british public, “is she pregnant?” 1.6 million people answered – 72% said she was pregnant - and that’s cool and everything but that’s not the interesting part. The really interesting part is that BT also asked people “How should the story carry on?” And those people answered.
If anyone from AMV is here, you might have just written yourselves out of a job – because people will happily plug and in write - and they’ll even put in some sort of product RTB thing there.
As I looked through more of these, you can see that people really start to project themselves, their own deeper desires, into your story framework. Stuff they wouldn’t necessarily tell their friends, they will tell a phone company.
We’re coming to the end. In summary, it’s fair to say that I haven’t said a lot that’s very new. You will see a lot of new thinking today. But whenever you do, I bet its packaged up or supported by some kind of story – and when that happens, whose point are they really proving? In fact, the principles I’m talking about are extremely old. But that doesn’t mean that they should be seen as arcane. You can use story theory in clever, creative, and profitable ways, and they still work –so here’s how you make people care.
Let’s conjure up what people care about – address what really matters to them through the lens of what we do, not just what matters to us.
Let’s have a world of fortune and failure, like the one that really exists.
Let’s use that concept to create suspense
When we can, let’s let people project onto our own frameworks, give them a sense of agency.
And let’s always have a juicy plot twist. Wait, what?
Like any good story, this presentation has a plot twist. I have a confession to make.
So there’s another reason why I like stories so much and that reason is: I’ve been writing one. Some of you may know that this month is National Novel Writing Month. Thousands of people try it every year and this year, one of them is me! The goal in the month of November is to write a 50,000 word novel.
I have quite a lot to do this weekend. This isn’t a proper part of the presentation, this is just me wanting to tell you the whole story. It’s been an absolutely amazing experience to create a world, a world that I own. I’ve done it at the cost of my health and sanity, and I’m loving every minute of it. And when I do something like that it says to me that people aren’t sick of long-form content like people say. Not at all, we’re hard-wired to get deeply attached to involving experiences. No, what people are sick of is content that tries to give people exactly what they want, that it out of touch with reality, that doesn’t connect them to the deeper truths of what it means to be human. Let’s give them the chance to care again.
@jamescmitchell Brixton-Soho Nov 2010 :)
The value of a good story jm 2010
The role for a good story in marketing
@jamescmitchell follow me on the
twitter why don’t you
Like any good story, this presentation has a
You see, I’ve been rather busy this month,
writing a novel.
This is the point: what other form of
entertainment/content creation could keep
someone so engaged on so personal a level,
for so long?
Photos: Evan Baden