In Defense of “Storytelling”

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I’m now three posts into my shapes of stories blog series and I’ve discussed Vonnegut’s “man-in-a-hole” and “boy meets girl” story shapes. Before I write another post about a specific shape, I want to interrupt my regularly scheduled programming and beat my chest for a couple minutes about why we can’t let jargon-heads turn storytelling into another meaningless buzzword.

Much of the impetus for this blog series stemmed from my frustration that storytelling and advertising are often used interchangeably by marketers, when in reality there isn’t much of a story in most “brand storytelling.” By introducing Vonnegut’s straightforward shapes, I want to convey the simplicity behind our culture’s most popular stories so we can better understand how to shape our messages.   

But I fear I’ve deviated from my original path and I’m in danger of becoming just one more marketer shouting that if we “tell more stories,” we’ll sell more product. If you can, spare me several minutes and allow me to course correct and plead my case for actual storytelling.      

So first things first, what is a story? Is it an account of events, an amusing anecdote, a news broadcast, or a fictional narrative? Is it a rumor, lie, or falsehood? Perhaps a legend or romance? The answer, at least according to Merriam-Webster, is all of the above.   

This may be reductive, but I believe storytelling can be defined as the art and science of eliciting an emotional response — if your audience feels something, you’re telling a story.  

When used as a marketing buzzword worthy of parody, “storytelling” usually refers to bolting on tools from fiction to your advertising —  all this toilet paper YouTube pre-roll ad needs is the hero’s journey and it’ll win a Cannes. I sincerely hope I am not another marketer pontificating that plot, character, and metaphor are the collective panacea for all your marketing creative ills.  

We need to think less about storytelling tools and more about the basic build and release of tension that is the fundamental building block of any good story. Tools change based on the medium and message, but tension can be easily applied to professional communication.     

In Nancy Duarte’s book, Resonate, she studied some of the most effective presentations and speeches, everything from Steve Jobs launching the iPhone to Martin Luther King proclaiming “I have a dream” and she found this common shape:

Credit: Resonate by Nancy Duarte

In Nancy’s words, an effective presenter begins by “painting a picture of the audience’s current world” before a “call to adventure” that creates an imbalance between the way things are and the way they could be. This imbalance is maintained throughout the presentation by alternating content that describes these contrasting realities. A final call to action “articulates the finish line for the audience to cross” and ends the presentation with a shared understanding of the reward possible. The audience is now motivated to take action that will make things the way they can and should be.  

Much like Vonnegut’s story shapes, Nancy’s presentation shape is simple and dualistic. For Vonnegut, the emotional arc is between infinite happiness and soul-crushing sadness, for Nancy it is the gap between the way things are and the way they could be. Either way, the story has a build and release of tension defined by whether something will be perceived as positive or negative.           

I would say the shape Nancy Duarte found in these iconic presentations is actually Vonnegut’s “Boy Meets Girl”:

Each shape begins with the way things are (the audience’s reality, the boy’s everyday life). An alternate, better existence is shown (boy meets girl, the way things could be). The fragility of this better existence is shown (boy loses girl, the presenter contrasts what could be with the way things are). Ultimately there is a blissful reward (the boy gets the girl back, the audience leaves able to make things the way they should be).   

A recent study from researchers at the University of Vermont in Burlington confirmed the existence of six basic emotional storytelling arcs with natural language processing technology. They used sentiment analysis to assess emotional changes from word to word and were able to chart the arcs of over 1,700 popular stories downloaded from the Project Gutenberg, an effort aimed at aggregating and digitizing important cultural works.  

The six arcs they found:

“A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll. A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet. A fall then a rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story, discussed by Vonnegut. A rise then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus. Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella. Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.”

Of these six arcs, the two that were found to be the most popular (as determined by how often they were downloaded from the project) were two of Vonnegut’s story shapes — man-in-a-hole and Cinderella.  

I don’t present these shapes as irrefutable dogma that must be immediately implemented in your marketing, but instead as inspiration that can challenge you to introduce similar tension points in your own messages.

As sales and marketing professionals, too often we shape our pitches to both team members and the public as such:

This is the way things are, now let me tell you why they will be a million times better. We only tell our audience why our idea or product is the greatest thing that anybody has ever conceived with no tension or conflict.    

But this doesn’t make your message persuasive, it makes it sound like bullshit.     

We cannot be afraid to introduce points of tension, conflict, and challenge into our communication. People love stories because they love struggles that mirror their own. Human existence is a dual-natured struggle between the way things are and the way we want them to be. Effective communication can and should mirror this.     

It doesn’t even have to be on a grand scale — emails, slack messages, and hell, even “water-cooler talk” can take on these story shapes.

No matter the message, or the medium, considering emotional story arcs will improve your communication and make it more human, and ultimately more persuasive.  

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