In Elements of Persuasion we define a story as a fact, wrapped in an emotion that compels us to take an action that changes our world. To see this in real time, turn on CNBC Monday morning and watch the experts desperately try to come up with a storyline that explains the recent drop in the market – a story that doesn’t seem like a tragedy. I don’t know why the market suddenly dropped like a stone, or if it will bounce back, but I am sure that most of what the experts tell me now will be fiction. Which isn’t their fault. Confronted with powerful emotions and facts that apparently contradict what they were saying only a few days ago, these experts have to spin stories so they can keep going. It’s human nature. Even fiction keeps them from suffering the worst of all fates in a rapidly moving market – brain freeze. It really is a case of any story in a storm.
Ever since his film, Roger and Me, which held GM accountable for the destruction of Flint, Michigan (as well as forcing good, decent, hard working people to kill and eat cute little bunnies), Michael Moore has been a polarizing force in politics. His “documentaries” work as stories (many don’t) because he casts himself as the hero out to expose wrong doers, a classic hero role. But his latest film – Sicko – defines his point of view not by what it is against (corporate greed, the gun lobby, or the war in Iraq) but by what it is for – universal health care. The result is a softer, more accepting heroism. His on screen know-it-all swagger becomes the mildly befuddled air we all have as we try to figure out what our health plan covers and why. When he visits countries that do have universal health care (every other industrialized nation), he seems amazed and disbelieving. At one point he puts his hands over his ears so he won’t have to hear some of the benefits the French receive from their health coverage to avoid being overwhelmed with envy. As a result, his persona is more attractive personally and more powerful politically. Moore wins the argument by refusing to have it, playing the ingénue. The final image – Moore carrying a basket of dirty laundry up the steps of the Nation’s Capital, hoping to find someone who will wash it for him – seems aimed straight at the most important political demographic in coming years – males 18 to 27. This is state of the art political propaganda at its best.
I coached a senior military officer who worried that her boss, The Admiral, was stuck in the past, potentially endangering American electronic security. Responsible for developing and protecting cyber networks for a large portion of the Atlantic Coast, and concerned that these assets were vulnerable to attack, she asked her boss for more resources. He wasn’t interested.
Her career, and more importantly, essential assets were vulnerable as never before. She had given her boss all the important facts, yet her proposals were rejected, and he stopped returning her phone calls. She could resign her commission and walk away but was sure she would hate herself if she took that action.
I didn’t see the problem as old thinking vs. new, and focused on helping her to connect her emotions to her story in a constructive way. I challenged her to tell me the story from her bosses’ POV rather than hers. At first all she could do was shake her head and say “that’s easy he is an idiot and that’s that.”
Slowly, she was able to see thru his eyes and feel the deck through his boots. By doing this exercise she gained valuable strategic and emotional insight. The next time she saw The Admiral she was able to frame his problems clearly and offer solutions that he could hear.
My client increased her EQ (emotional intelligence) by learning to shift her point of view. Daniel Goleman of Emotional Intelligence fame says that EQ is twice as valuable as IQ as an indicator of success, and constructing a story from someone else’s prospective is a powerful way to build EQ.
At FirstVoice we study the substance of our client’s stories. We look for the power they can gain by properly defining and using the basic story elements every story (TV commercial, feature film, love sonnet or sales pitch) needs to earn shelf space in our overcrowded memories. This doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the importance that form plays in making some stories – particularly TV ads – stickier than others. I stumbled across a slide show connected to Seth Stevenson piece in Slate, “There Are 12 Kinds of Ads in the World – Resist them all!” in which he discusses a theory by Adman Donald Gunn that all ads are based on 12 “master formats.” The theory is strong, and the 12 example ads the slide show uses to make his case are great examples of how to use the five story elements in practice. Plug into the slide show at slate.com and we’ll talk more about how form (the 12 master formats) and substance (the five story elements) interact to create a hit.
Which happens first? Do people become nervous about some macroeconomic fact (say interest rates) that they have heard news stories about, and then decide to sell their stock? Or do they react emotionally to a small movement in the market and reinforce it by selling their own stock – thereby starting a trend, which the media then justifies by finding an appropriate macroeconomic fact to serve as the basis for a news story? In other words – are all those stories you hear on CNBC leading or trailing indicators? The financial press has a tremendous vested interest in saying that the information they deliver drives the markets. To see it from a different perspective, read the theories of Bob Prechter at elliotwave.com. His basic theory, which he calls socioeconomics, is that it is emotions – particularly crowd emotions – that move the market, and he has a lot of examples to back that up. Bear in mind that any time I make a market suggestion, it is almost guaranteed to be wrong (just ask my wife) and as I type this I can hear my partner Bob laughing at what a gullible idiot I am. But I’m not talking about the market, I’m talking about the stories it generates, and how and when it generates them. I think socioeconomics has a lot to say about that, but then, I’ve always had a soft spot for science fiction too. What do you think?
In a recent post, I wrote that the YouTube debate format – which allows actual voters to asks questions in ways that stress their emotional content – demands that candidates hear the story inside the questions. The candidates who do this will be the ones that win not only those debates, but other increasingly web connected elections. Don’t believe the web-connected part? Look at the fund raising figures. There is a tremendous opportunity here to make empathetic contact with the voter, to become the hero of their story. This isn’t a massive paradigm shift (good politicians instinctively listen for the voter’s story), but it is a big enough change to suggest shifts in campaign communications strategy. The GOP seems to be shifting itself right off the playing field with Guilliani and Romney leading the rush to the showers. Both announced that they have “scheduling conflicts” and won’t be able to participate in the planned CNN-YouTube GOP debate. Check out Steve Benen’s work at Talking Points Memo (great website BTW –where I spend my morning coffee) to find out what they are afraid of, and click on the link to a video by the Firefighters showing how they feel about Guillaini. That video, and a few others linked to the site make it clear the GOP YouTube problem might be substantial.
As a recovering screenwriter I’m a proud member of the Writers Guild of America West, whose motto is “Americas Storytellers”. I firmly believe that Hollywood (well, LA including Burbank) is the storytelling capital of the world, but I have to admit that for three days every year, the capital shifts south to San Diego and Comicon, the worlds largest and most influential comic book convention. For those three days the Sand Diego Convention Center is packed, the conversations hyper (some people actually tell three stories at the same time), and measured by storyline per cubic centimeter no other place on the planet comes close. I didn’t make it this year, but a friend, Trevor Goring did and I will be pumping him for the latest story trends when he gets back. Trevor has a booth right in the middle. He’s not only a comic book artist, he is a storyboard artist (and soon to be art director) whose storytelling skills are a major part of the success of numerous films he’s worked on, and he just finished work on John Woo’s latest video game. Trevor has the Comicon trinity well covered. The action down there is so intense that if you are story sensitive it can actually give you a rash.
In general, it’s best to keep your politics and your business at arms length – unless of course you are actively engaged in buying your very own Senator or Congressman. There’s no point in loosing a potential client just because the two of you disagree over whatever wedge issue the pros are pushing at any given moment. So, why do we keep bringing up politics? Because political wedge issues are a great place to study story. The news media trumpets the latest political storyline, so everyone in the discussion starts on the same page. The story’s effect is immediately tracked with publicly available poling so we know which stories work and which don’t, and we can quickly figure out why. Other forms of advertising are polled, but those polls are generally proprietary and though you can get an idea about an ads success by checking sales figures, it is rarely an advertising story alone that moves a market (price, product design, and broader economic issues muddy the water). But people are pretty similar. What separates one candidate from another are the stories they choose to tell, and how they decide to tell them. We try to be ideologically balanced, but will go wherever the best stories are – because for us it’s the stories that matter.
Checkov said that an audience freely gives you their attention for the first five minutes of a play, but fail to engage them then and whatever comes after won’t matter. He lived in a more pastoral time. Now it’s do or die within the first thirty seconds. Fail to passionately engage me in your story within those crucial first moments and an entire season of TV becomes irrelevant. See it done right in FX’s new Glenn Close vehicle “Damages.” The action starts when a midtown Manhattan apartment elevator opens to revel a beautiful young woman (the shows ingénue Rose Byrne) wearing only a short slip under a raincoat, her face streaked with blood. She moves furtively across the lobby, avoids the doorman, and runs for her life down crowded streets, clutching the neck of the raincoat tight to hide her nakedness from strangers. All the story elements are present – we have a heroine whose problem we take on as our own, an implied antagonist (she is obviously running from something terrible) and our awareness is fully active as we look for clues to what’s going on. Most important, we passionately care. Passion always has a sexual, hormonal component. The image a beautiful, vulnerable young woman, covered in blood running half naked through crowds of strangers is so blatantly Freudian is it bound to get anyone’s juices flowing. Bravo. In less than thirty seconds we are hooked for the season.
At First Voice, the argument over whether or not story fits into a corporation’s communication strategy is long over. If you haven’t figured out the answer to that one is “YES!!” by now, chances are you won’t be in business long enough for the conversation to really matter. Since you’re reading a blog about story, we’re pretty sure you get it, but there is always the chance that your boss is lagging the cutting edge and clinging to last year’s PowerPoints. Instead of arguing about it, check out agoodmanonline.com and share the video you find there with him or her. Andy Goodman explains in clear terms why story is so effective in bringing in cold hard cash; the hardest sort of cash to bring in – donations to non-profits. Andy is one of the good guys, definitely on the side of the angels, so even though his workshops and ours are in one-sense competitors we don’t hesitate to turn you on to what he is saying. Why? Because one of the best things about story as a corporate strategy is it is rarely a zero sum game. The more good stories there are out there – and the more good storytellers are out there telling them – the more profit we all make. There is always room for one more happy ending.