The strategic power of storytelling

“Facts,” I recall Jane Caro once saying on an episode of The Gruen Transfer, “never convinced anyone of anything.” She was pointing out that emotions are much more likely to guide people’s decision making, and in particular decisions about purchasing.

Stories generate emotions. Or at least good stories do. This article from HBR starts out with the example of a Superbowl ad which had no attention grabbing celebrities or special effects, but had farmyard animals and an engaging story which helped sell large quantities of beer. The article attributes the ad’s success to its adoption of the five act structure (Freytag’s Pyramid) and the ability of a story to evoke a strong neurological response.

It’s not just about the manipulation of emotions to sell stuff. There’s also the ability to guide an organisation’s operations through use of storytelling. That is, storytelling as a strategy. This example, for instance, about changing behaviours.

“Penn State College of Medicine researchers found that medical students ‘ attitudes about dementia patients, who are perceived as difficult to treat, improved substantially after students participated in storytelling exercises that made them more sympathetic to their patients’ conditions.”

Behind these examples are, I suppose, leaders who understand when and how to deploy storytelling as a strategy. Leaders in organisations and leaders of the creative teams who put the campaigns/studies together. Is there a struggle of approaches, I wonder? How hard did someone behind the Budweiser ad have to argue to go with a story based approach, than just putting David Beckham on screen drinking Budweiser in front of some explosions?

Stereotypes and skills gaps

This study from CreativeSkillSet (a skills and training organisation) is about leadership and management skills gaps among workers in the UK’s creative industries. It also talks about development needs and learning preferences among creative workers.

It’s got some interesting if not particularly ground breaking observations in it, and its sample group is dominated by participants in the TV industry.

I notice a couple of unstated underlying assumptions. Both are included in this sentence:”It was widely reported that the transition from a creative role to a leadership position [assumption 1: the two are mutually exclusive, which is something I’ve written about here] involved the development of new skills and the management of creative professionals presents different challenges to managing in other sectors [assumption 2: creatives are a special and tricky breed].”

These seem to be to be stereotypes of a creative professional. In story terms, the character’s traits. It’s a narrative structure about leadership within creative industries which starts from the point of view that it’s a problem; almost antithetical to the sort of person you find working in a creative business.

Still, I liked this bit, from a focus group participant:

“You wouldn’t say to a finance person or to a legal person, ‘actually, now, you’ve just got to go off and write a script and be creative,’ because it would be an absolute nightmare. They would all sit there for about a day, write two lines, and then throw it in the bin. But you do it the other way around. People make assumptions that because people have got this title, that somewhere along the lines someone has sat down and shown them a P&L account and explained it to them.” 

Sounds a bit like what I do!