Unfortunately, the way many of us grew up, stories were equated with fables. “You see, Timmy…” was the wrap up on Lassie, followed by a ‘valuable lesson’. Disney did as much to perpetrate this version of storytelling as anyone, but it’s old. In fact, as a TV ‘trope’, it’s called “The Aesop” after Aesop’s fables. Most organizational narratives are just like that.
Flowers in the Attic
In the 80s, media became more politicized, and these object lessons were referred to as simply “the message”. Shrill rhetorical accusations took the form of a demand–”What MESSAGE does this movie send!?!” Literary works became a battle ground in the ‘culture war’ over public schools, from Steinbeck to Flowers in the Attic. Never mind that a fable is only one KIND of story, and by NO means the most popular kind. We insisted that EVERY story show its messaging credentials, before being approved. It was then a short hop to then simply equating the movie, the TV program, the novel, with the ‘message’ itself. Messages all but killed stories, and many Americans simply stopped loving them and stared at the newspaper for commentary on the latest “issues”. Messages became inescapable, prompting an equal number of people to flee in the other direction.
Mad Magazine and American Gods
Most of us HATED message-driven stories as inauthentic (and still do). Kids turned away from Scholastic Book Club and its then preachy teacher/parent approved sermonettes. We favored comic books, song lyrics, and underground novels like On The Road and Franny and Zooey. Retailers answered by refusing to stock comic titles that didn’t bear the Comics Code Authority stamp of moral approval. EC Comics and Golden Key Comics were publishing dark but human graphic novels that explored themes we KNEW were relevant, but which we weren’t supposed to talk about. In fact, they inspired some of the most interesting storytellers of our time, like Neil Gaiman (“Neverwhere” and “American Gods”). Mad Magazine was a breakout success, getting itself placed on store shelves DESPITE shunning that CCA stamp, by billing itself as a “magazine”. Role-playing games fueled user-driven open-ended stories for decades before, finally, the big labels followed suit, with Marvel dumping the CCA in 2001.
Narnia and The Lord of the Rings
Modern audiences don’t want to be force-fed a “message”. They want their own intellects and emotions INCLUDED in the narrative. They want to make up their own minds about what a story means. The very forces that pushed fables down our throats–notably religious fundamentalism, saturated the market until it burst wide open. It’s a shame, too; there are some wonderful allegories with fabulist elements, like The Narnia Chronicles, that hold an eminent place in great literature. By contrast, though, JRR Tolkien specifically eschewed allegory and vehemently denied that The Lord of the Rings, while undoubtedly INFLUENCED by WWII, was an allegory for the struggle against Hitler and world fascism. Fables and allegory risk being dictatorial. “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” Fast forward to the present day, and “What’s the message?” as a basis for crafting a story falls flat and on deaf ears.
It Ain’t Semantics, Buddy
The corporate message isn’t much different, but companies stuck to their guns much longer. The average home page is still rife with “We offer… we provide… we are the first name in… we have been around since…” And it finishes with a valuable lesson: “You need a company that… (cares?)” Apparently not. The everything-about-us “message” is decidedly self-centered, narcissistic, and forgetful of the audience.
We’re not talking about semantics–we still use terms like “messaging” to refer to our overall communications, but we can no longer afford to tell the company and customer story in the same way. Social media has prompted a surge in corporate storytelling, but organizations–commercial and non-profit–still struggle to practically differentiate storytelling from traditional advertising. A lot of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter ads still look like shrunk down billboards–there might be a story, but it’s still a thinly disguised fable, with “buy our shit” as the punchline.
Harry’s Fixes Shaving
Still, modern storytelling has widely caught on. Harry’s, the shaving brand, is a stellar example. They’ve changed razors from a product to a service. Harry’s is engaged in an OVERALL narrative about “fixing shaving” that gets men happy and women who buy for them excited. If Ockham’s Razor is “make the simpler case”; Harry’s Razor (pun intended) is “make the case from a client’s aspirational viewpoint”. Razors as a product are commoditized; Harry’s turns that on its head by first making shaving simpler, and a joy, and then telling that story from the perspective of OUR desires as men living our lives beyond the razor. Harry’s doesn’t focus on the blade, but what it means to US.
Contrast that with the 1988 Dockers ad, roasted by Seinfeld in the episode “The Phone Message”: “What does it have to do with the PANTS?” The ad is getting there, but he’s got a point–like a lot of ads from that era, it presents an image, but one stripped of the arc implicit in any story.
Fighting Bland, Embracing Human
The dearth of engaging corporate copy led Jean Tang, CEO of MarketSmiths Content Strategists, Inc, to launch a “War on the Bland” (see her 17min TED talk delivered in Gramercy, NYC) and to tag her brand “Copywriting for Humans”. MadPipe sends her company business for a lot of reasons: 1) PROJECT MANAGEMENT: it’s hard to corral the creative juices of passionate writers into consistent, enterprise grade writing projects, and MarketSmiths pulls it off in singular style. We haven’t seen any content company do that as well. 2) ROI: When readers feel engaged, they take action. MarketSmiths accommodates a brand’s unique voice, but they produce sales collateral, web copy, and blog content that prioritize engaging the reader. The “about us” part of the company narrative is the backdrop; the “here’s you” part (about the prospective CLIENT) is central. In short, the end-user is woven into the narrative, rather than left on the outside waiting for Timmy’s valuable lesson.
Messages Are Fake News
In a “post-truth” environment, “fake” is a knee-jerk response to everything; didactic “messages” mean less than ever, and reality itself has become superficial. The upside is that storytelling is both the sine qua non and raison d’être of a brand’s conversation with its public. Adweek’s Katie Richards points out (Adweek, incidentally, is one of my favorite publications) that it’s not just government, media, and NGOs that have lost credibility–businesses have noted a corresponding drop-off in trust. She cites the response of American Express–you’ve got to get customers involved in sharing their stories, as well as PayPal advising to put the customer at the center of everything, and Amazon observing that “The essence of any great brief starts with the customer, and the essence of an awful brief is that it starts with business.”
Watch Your Favorite Comedian
I LIKE Disney, Lassie and Aesop, and I couldn’t wait for the next Scholastic Book Club catalog in my pre-teen years, because powerful imaginations can co-create meaning, even with dictatorial stories or someone shoving a ‘message’ at us. But there’s a big difference between reading a story alone in your room by flashlight, after the parents have gone to sleep, and TELLING a story to a community of people who feel connected to the storyteller and to each other in their hardships and successes.
This is why I like standup comedy so much; those guys put it all out there–they take some risks, but the moment they stop being real, the connection is broken, and the audience knows. Lewis Black engages an audience with the deftness of a country singer. Holding up a bottle of water, he says, “We care so much about health that we’ve destroyed water. When I was a child, water was the simplest thing of all–it was the essence of life…” He goes on to talk about drinking water from the neighbor’s ordinary garden hose. I remember that, too. Watch your favorite comedian closely; they don’t make it without mastering that essential connection with the audience’s experience.
So when I look at an organization’s brand narrative, product roadmap, or corporate storytelling, I’m watching the audience, not staring at the logo and staying in my own head with the brand. The more organizations think like modern storytellers, prioritizing engagement over ‘message’, the less agonizing effort they have to invest in getting the audience to drink the Kool-Aid. Kool-Aid ads are another story, so we’ll save those for a future post.