November 30, 2016

Evergreen Stories Part 2: What role do stories play?

Part 1 of ‘Evergreen Stories’ can be found here.

Part 2: More than mere ‘Entertainment’

Over the last 200 years, storytelling has become synonymous with the word ‘entertainment’. The most popular modern form of story is the film, or movie. Most people will tell you they go to the movies to be entertained.

But is it really this simple?

Entertainment is one role of a story, and certainly an appealing role. But a story that only serves to entertain is quickly forgotten. After the bombs, explosions and special effects die down, you go back to ‘real life’ with the same outlook, perspective and experience. The entertainment quickly evaporates once the movie ends.

In his book The Pledge, Michael Masterson argues that all the activities you fill your life with fall into three categories; golden, vaporous, and acidic.

Acidic activities are things that harm you, or harm your relationships with those around you. Vaporous activities leave you more or less the same. Golden activities improve you in some way.

A single activity can fall into all three categories, depending on the circumstances. For me, getting drunk is an acidic activity. I don’t do it veryoften, but drunkenness usually leads to me being obnoxious and sick. (In that order).

Once or twice a week I’ll have a small glass of whisky at home. The odd measure of whisky here and there leaves me as I was, but the pleasure I feel from drinking it evaporates quickly once the glass is empty.

For me, sharing a good whisky with a friend I haven’t seen for a long time is a golden activity. The drinking itself is a catalyst to strengthen my relationships with those around me, which in a way improves me.

Using the same framework to look at entertainment, I would argue that playing video games is an acidic entertainment activity. Especially modern computer games, where it is possible to disappear into a fabricated world for weeks at a time, talking only to people you know online.

Most films, especially the dross produced by Hollywood, belong in the vapour category. It’s entertaining at the time; a bit like a mental joy-ride. But once the film ends and the ride stops, you’re back to where you were before the film.

In the golden category, an exceptional film will both entertain you, and teach you something along the way. When you watch The Shawshank Redemption, or Fatal Attraction, the film is still entertaining. But underneath the entertainment the film has a deeper message. ‘Watch yourself…’ is the message. ‘This could happen to you…

Obviously the film heightens the message through drama. It’s unlikely in real life that you would commit adultery with a woman who would go on to boil your daughter’s pet rabbit. But we recognise a truth in the warning.

A really great story does entertain you, but is also does something else. It lingers around in a subconscious brain for a little while, poking and prodding at things you thought you knew.

The challenge we face as business owners, marketers and humans, is to tell more golden stories. To tell stories that still entertain your audience, but also leave them better off for listening to you.

You don’t have to broadcast the fact that you are telling a story. You don’t have to start off by saying ‘once upon a time’. In the last couple of pages I’ve told you about my whisky drinking habits, to illustrate the point I wanted to make. I could have just told you the point without the illustration, but it wouldn’t have been as illuminating.

Most marketers shy away from telling stories, believing instead that their customers are only interested in information. It is true that the closer somebody comes to placing an order with you, the more information they need about your proposition. But with any ‘high ticket’ purchase, the decision to buy from you does not happen as a result of information. Information only serves to justify a decision already made at a previous stage.

To get to the point where a potential buyer is receptive to your information, they need to first trust you on an emotional level. You need to have held their attention for a period of time. To my knowledge, stories are the most effective and least understood way to do this.

Storytelling was once an essential survival skill…

As a species, modern humans (homo sapiens) are a relatively new addition to the world. Our ancestors first appeared in Africa, about 200,000 years ago. If this sounds like a long time to you, consider that the Tyrannosaurus Rex lived 65 million years ago.

In the long history of the Earth, human dominance is a relatively new development. And human dominance, it seems, was once far from assured.

Most people who live outside of Africa can genetically trace their lineage back to a small group of humans who left Africa, about 100,000 years ago. Geneticists estimate there were no more than between 150 and 1000 individuals in the group.

At the time, leaving Africa would have been a major ordeal. As it does today, the Sahara desert would have presented an impassable barrier to the North. A widely held belief is that our small band of ancestors ‘escaped’ from Africa across the Red Sea, in a window of opportunity when sea levels were up to 70 metres lower. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s likely they will have rafted across in treacherous conditions.

On arriving in Arabia, they would have been confronted with more desert. How would they have survived, on the arid Arabian peninsula? And how would they have escaped, to colonise the rest of the world?

With sea levels much lower, it’s possible there were once a series of natural springs across the coast of Arabia. You can still see evidence of these springs, like this one at Al Ain on the UAE-Oman border.

Oasis of greenery

A green oasis in a sea of desert. Image source

It’s possible that over thousands of years, our ancestors made their way around the Arabian coast, stopping off at green centres of respite.

Regardless of whether the ‘escape from Africa’ theory is historically accurate, do you see how this has the beginnings of an epic story? We already have a ‘quest’ plot on our hands. We have the ‘helping’ rejuvinating forces of the springs. We have the ‘deadly force’ of the desert, complete with any monsters it may have contained.

Even if the story isn’t true, it’s certainly plausible enough for your mind’s eye to entertain the image, and for it to hold your attention.

We’ll look at what this means tomorrow.


Rob Drummond

Rob Drummond runs the Maze Marketing Podcast and Maze Mastery. Rob specialises in content production, ad creation, storytelling and CRM systems. He has two published books, Magnetic Expertise and Simple Story Selling, affordable on Amazon.