It has long been recognized that storytelling is a powerful way to emotionally connect with others and influence thoughts, opinions, attitudes and behaviors. Emerging science is supporting the age old wisdom that storytelling is, indeed, the best way to communicate and move target audiences to action.
The message has been received in the business world as something of a “new gospel of business,” which according to Jonathan Gottschall in Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon, represents a real insight into communications strategy. Storytelling, after all, is what makes humanity unique. An engrossing narrative is far more emotionally moving than spreadsheets or “data dumps,” and without one, a product, brand or platform could end up dead in the water.
Mastering good storytelling has become critical in industries disrupted by increasingly fragmented digital channels. The explosion of Twitter and other platforms demonstrates that social media users and target audiences alike often actively work to be a part of and interact with real-time stories. Hence, the power of the story to draw audiences in and provide escapism.
It is the power to mold minds and beliefs through that escapism that Peter Guber cautions against in his book Tell to Win. Gottschall explains, “The central metaphor of Tell to Win is the Trojan Horse. You know the back story: After a decade of gory stalemate at Troy, the ancient Greeks decided they would never take Troy by force, so they would take it by guile. They pretended to sail home, leaving behind a massive wooden horse, ostensibly as an offering to the gods … But the horse was full of Greek warriors … Guber tells us that stories can also function as Trojan Horses. The audience accepts the story because, for a human, a good story always seems like a gift. But the story is actually just a delivery system for the teller’s agenda. A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind.”
Scientific research over the past several decades has shed light on some of the ways in which story influences the human mind’s perception of the world. Exposure to certain types of narrative frameworks over time, as well as level of interest, are factors that contribute to how much a story can influence and even distort one’s view of the world. Dr. George Gerbner, a renown communications researcher, found that people who were heavy viewers of television programs with crime and violent themes tended to believe that violent crime rates were much higher than they actually were. The phrase “mean world syndrome” was coined to describe to phenomenon, whereby viewers have gradually, but cummatively ‘cultivated’ attitudes that are more consistent with the narrative world of television than with reality.
Gottschall notes that the psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock have also shown that being absorbed by fictional worlds makes readers drop their intellectual guard, allowing the emotional content to dominate the message. “Highly absorbed readers also detected significantly fewer “false notes” in stories–inaccuracies, missteps–than less transported readers. Importantly, it is not just that highly absorbed readers detected the false notes and didn’t care about them (as when we watch a pleasurably idiotic action film). They were unable to detect the false notes in the first place.”
Many including Guber, see the power of storytelling in business, in particular, as a positive force. However, as Gottschall points out, Guber also understands that because we are all emotional beasts at our core, it is necessary to be mindful of Trojan Horses, “So there are two big lessons to take from Guber’s book and from the new science of storytelling. First, storytelling is a uniquely powerful form of persuasive jujitsu. Second, in a world full of black belt storytellers, we had all better start training our defenses. Master storytellers want us drunk on emotion so we will lose track of rational considerations, relax our skepticism, and yield to their agenda. Yes, we need to tell to win, but it’s just as important to learn to see the tell coming–and to steel ourselves against it.”Source: the Llano Grand Center
Despite the overwhelming power of the story to disarm our critical senses, it is the molding power of storytelling that must be harnessed wisely in order to have an effective communications strategy. Audiences and consumers want to understand how information or new products directly affects them, and storytelling provides the vehicle. Take for example, the use of storytelling in broadcast news. The day’s top headlines aren’t just a dump of meaningless data. The news industry uses storytelling as a way to package facts, figures and noteworthy events, to engage audiences and put otherwise random information into perspective. Moreover, since the explosion of film and television, we have all unconsciously learned to understand the universal language that comes with exposure to popular genres, archetypes, narrative devices and motifs.
The challenges of digital fragmentation shouldn’t stifle the business of creativity. Rather, communications strategies should incorporate good storytelling, backed by good science. The best storytellers master use of the familiar, or the universal language to which we’ve all come accustomed, but also add new twists, such as turning a genre on its head or playing with audience expectations of established archetypal characters. However, as we are creatures drawn to story, the best storytellers must also harness the power of story in order to bring change for the better, while also guarding their own critical faculties.
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