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Carry on storytelling

Opinion, 04 March 2016

You may know the semi-legendary rant by graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in which he splendidly calls BS on 'storytelling'.

Speaking at a Canadian design festival in 2014, Sagmeister attacked the current vogue in the communications industry for describing our work as that of storytellers.

'Now everybody's a storyteller,' he says.

'Recently I read an interview with someone who designs roller coasters and he referred to himself as a 'storyteller.' No! You are not a storyteller, you're a roller coaster designer!'

He continues 'There is this fallacy out there. I don't think I fell for it, but somehow maybe unconsciously I did, you know... I've seen a number of films so I must be able to make a film'.

People who actually tell stories, meaning people who write novels and make feature films don't see themselves as storytellers. It's all the people who are not storytellers suddenly now want to be storytellers.'

I'm not sure if Sagmeister expands on this in any of the 22 books he has published…

Yes, all this is pretty funny, but is it fair?

Given the prevalence of inane drivel spouted in the name of brand storytelling on the interwebs is hard not to side with Stefan.

Where to begin?

In the early chapters of his fantastic book 'The Storytelling Animal' author and literary Darwinist Jonathan Gottschall makes this observation:

'The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can't.'

Why might the mind be wired for storytelling?

'We are an insatiably curious species' says the sociobiologist, EO Wilson '…provided the subjects are our personal selves and people we know or would like to know'

So it would also appear that we are born to gossip. (Albeit within narrow parameters.)

Indeed, the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar agrees, calling gossip 'an instrument of social order and cohesion' - akin to the grooming behaviour common among our cousins in the larger primate world.

Primate grooming is not so much about hygiene, although that is a nice by-product. Grooming is essentially a substitute for language.

It creates bonds, establishes social status and influences other primates.

Dunbar and other evolutionary psychologists suggest that humans developed language specifically to serve the same social purposes.

(note: Grooming was simply not practical for early humans. Given their large social groups - around 150 or so - grooming one another would have been an impossible time-suck for our hunter gatherer ancestors.)

Language evolved, as it was a more practical and useful way of keeping up to date with friends and family, and obtaining social information about others in the group.

Particularly information about whom one should trust.

This explains – at least in part - why all of us 21st century humans are still pretty preoccupied with gossip and stories about other peoples behavior and reputation.

Reputation became important in this sense because – as a rule of thumb – it made more survival sense to be more generous toward others who were also reputable.

I often afford a wry smile at the call from some corners of the marketing world for 'authentic brand stories'.

This is something of an oxymoron given that it is in the nature of stories to feed our social instincts for gossip only cherry picking the most dramatic and salient parts in recounting events.

The behavioural scientist Daniel Nettle echoes EO Wilson:

'Conversations are only interesting to the extent that you know about the individuals involved and your social world is bound into theirs…

Given that dramatic characters are mostly strangers to us, then, the conversation will have to be unusually interesting to hold our attention. That is, the drama has to be an intensified version of the concerns of ordinary conversation.'

He goes on to argue that we don't watch films about people going shopping; we watch films about people going shopping who are having an affair with an ex-lover.

Similarly, a book about some old geezer who goes fishing is not that interesting.

But a story about an old man who goes fishing off the coast of Cuba and ends up in an epic existential battle with a giant pointy nosed fish while contemplating his own mortality is more compelling.

To Sagmeister's earlier point, everyone is a storyteller to some degree – inasmuch as this innate allergy to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence requires it in order that we tell our own story to ourselves.

Among communications professionals perhaps that the ability to create evocative brand stories probably depends on a couple of key skills - not necessarily available to all and the reason why great creative minds are so valuable.

The first– and this is planner territory for the most part - is the ability to observe and interpret the hidden parts of everyday life (aka insight), then ensure that the drama is an intensified version of these concerns.

Secondly, is the creative's ability to work within our cognitive limitations and make things simple yet still contain enough neuro-juice to get noticed.

(This is not to infer that people are stupid, rather that we have a lot more important things to occupy our minds with than brand stories - simplicity is paramount.)

I think it was Dave Trott who coined the idea that any idiot can take a simple idea and make it complicated. It takes a lot more skill to make the complicated simple.

The great stories – and therefore the great brand stories – always reflect the great universal themes of life.

Evolutionary study has produced a universal picture of the human mind that can be mapped and reflected in all human activity.

From the ice age to the dole-age there is but one concern. OK, more like five.

Surviving, finding mates, being a parent, being part of a group and being the hero who triumphs in the face of adversity.

Brand storytellers should relax. Perhaps not try so hard.

Storytelling, it seems, is less something that is done to us, and more something we are super skilled in doing to ourselves.

Our innate ability to confabulate and fill in the gaps - often extensive - with plausibility, and preserve some sort of narrative continuity based on the merest scraps of information is nothing short of a marvel.

So, carry on storytelling.

Gottschall agrees:

'The way we experience story will evolve, but as storytelling animals, we will no more give it up than start walking on all fours.'

(And even in a perfect world, where everyone was equal.

I'd still own the film rights and be working on the sequel).

About the author

Eaon Pritchard is Head of Strategy - Government Services, Dentsu Aegis Network, Australia.