What usually works: storytelling

What I’m listening to as I type this: Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia

I was watching a bunch of my students pitching their ideas for new web businesses, and found myself thinking about the Great British Bake Off.

I’ve only ever watched three episodes of GBBO, and the gap between the first and third was a couple of years. But what struck me most was the style gulf between the two – the step-up in terms of storytelling.

Which is how come I was thinking about the TV programme while I was watching journalism students pitch. Because the thing I remember most from learning to pitch myself – back when I was in VC-hunt overdrive, was that the best way to present the problem your product is designed to solve, is to explain it through telling a story.  Uber-VC Fred Destin said that.

Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy – storytelling is what being a journalist is about. We “people” news stories, we add walk-you-through structure; hook-you-in intros, and wrap-up conclusions.

My strongest pitch started with the (real) story of the news story I wish I’d never put on a front page, and why that led to me launching two open publishing products. I would tell her story and show her picture:

Not saying whoIt would be wrong for me to retell her story here. But my aim was to illustrate why I was doing what I was doing and why I believed it was important to help people write their own stories.

I still believe that. I haven’t changed my view that a good journalist is an enabler of truth, not a director.

Anyway, I’m drifting away from the point here. Which is  that storytelling delivers a narrative shorthand that helps us to explain and to sell ideas.

It does so not because we’re natural storytellers – some are, some learn how to be; but because we’re natural story listeners. We learn about and make sense of the world through narrative. Perhaps increasingly so as we tell stories across more and different media.

I’m going to quote from Robert McKee’s  ‘Story’:

The world now consumes films, novels, theatre, and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.

McKee’s seminal book on the principles of screenwriting was published in 1999 – ten years after Berners-Lee invented the web and the same year a 15-year-old Mark Zuckerberg (aka “Slim Shady”) launched his first website.

McKee, Berners-Lee, not even Slim Shady Zuckerberg, would have imagined the billions of stories being shared across 1.37+ billion web pages today. We present the story of who we are (or who we want to be seen to be)  by sharing what we’re doing.

Here’s another picture and another story:

TGBBO's Ruby TandohGreat British Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh wrote a combative comment piece for the Guardian, about the “bitterness and bile”, “vitriol and misogyny” tossed casually at her and fellow GBBO contestants by some public and press.

Ruby acknowledged the “meticulously manufactured” nature of TV but may not have realised what “manufactured” means in terms of storytelling when the aim is to deliver McKee’s “personal, emotional experience.” When storytelling engineers an emotional response in the audience, should it be a surprise when that emotion spills over into the real world?

Boyd Hilton, TV editor of Heat magazine explained it thus:

Obviously the producers shape [GBBO] to give each contestant an identifiable personality….  It’s up to the people who make these programmes to create the stories and give us an idea of how they feel the personalities come across.

Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, in their book Reality TV: Realism and Revelation, explain the success of Reality TV as “the exhibition of the self” wherein a revelatory narrative instructs audiences in “how to manage the self” through  recognisable subjects (ie people types) dealing with personal crisis.

The need to hold our attention within the time limit of the programme leads to a narrative shorthand of confession and emotional revelation in order to convince the audience of the authenticity – the ‘reality’ – of the stories being told.

Ruby becomes the weepy one, Kimberley the automaton, and Frances – well Frances delivers “integrity” (read authenticity). Each baking challenge is a typical action-through-conflict scene, and, just as all stepmothers are witches and all Princes handsome, each woman in the (any) group can only be one Spice Girl.

If the point of storytelling is to make an emotional connection between story and listener, or protagonists’ ‘story’ and the listener/viewer, what is the point of storytelling in relation to my students’ pitches? Why am I linking the Bake Off to the pitch off?

Because storytelling – narrative – is a shorthand to making a connection with your audience. Doesn’t matter whether that audience is 8m viewers, 1m readers, three VCs, or one grandchild.

Jack TV

Jack controlling the story arc

Stories have an arc. That arc is defined as an absolute value change –  the frog became a Prince; the soldier gave his life;  eventually, she won. McKee describes the core of a good story as a “fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.” We wanted this, we got that.

A good pitch includes a value change story arc that tells us how things could be better. It also includes – like reality TV – reference to the ordinary: this is something ordinary people will be changed by; this is a product recognisable people types will use to solve a problem.

You see a real cool girl in a class and you want to know what other classes she’s signed up for so you can sign up too… students go and look up other people and find out who they know, who their friends are, what people say about them, what photos they have… This is information people used to dig for on a daily basis, nicely reorganized and summarized… You don’t miss the photo album about your friend’s trip to Nepal. Maybe if your friends are all going to a party, you want to know so you can go too…

All stories Zuckerberg told in Facebook’s early years to explain why ordinary students would use it; the problems it would solve, and the value change it would deliver. Or how about Reed Hastings’ story of the $40 late fine for returning a video that led to him launching Netflix – an ordinary event, a problem we recognise and a solution we can therefore understand.

I’m going to finish with McKee on pitching business ideas through storytelling:

The… much more powerful way [to persuade people] is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy. Persuading with a story is hard. Any intelligent person can sit down and make lists. It takes rationality but little creativity to design an argument using conventional rhetoric. But it demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough emotional power to be memorable.

 

tell-me-a-story