Jan 1, 2007

Don't sell me a story. Tell me one instead.

My wife and I spent New Year's Eve with some close friends. As Dick Clark narrated the approach of midnight (I was simultaneously impressed and disheartened by the obvious effects of his stroke), we tried a game called "Taboo." To play, you make teams of two people (we did boys vs. girls) who take turns giving each other clues to guess "secret words."

The hook of the game is the each word comes with a list of taboo terms--using those to give clues causes you to lose points. For example, to help your partner guess "Big Bird®" you can't say Sesame Street®, Muppet®, television, yellow or feathers. So you might say, "An avian friend of Oscar the Grouch."

To put it bluntly, the girls cleaned our clock. My wife simply gave more linguistically potent clues. Our friend, who writes fiction, actually told stories about each word, which led directly to the right answer. What's more, she wove a story from word to word, building each subsequent word on the last one. Stuck with MadLibs style clues and pop culture references, we boys couldn't compete with that.

Why is this interesting in a business sense? It's a powerful reminder that communications become more effective when we make situations and motivations more human and relevant. And nothing facilitates this process like a story.

As a copywriter, I've learned that I can better communicate the logic behind concepts by setting the communication context with a brief story. It puts people "into" the situation and allows them to think like the intended recipient of our banners, web pages, direct mail, advertisements, etc. It also helps to close the gap between presenter and audience.

The tactic has application beyond mere selling. A company from Australia called Antedote uses storytelling and narrative to help companies identify and solve business problems for much the same reasons. When people tell a story about their supply chain, for example, the true nature of the situation or dynamic becomes clear--without a conscious effort to reveal it.

This idea also extends to companies and their branding. What's your story? Who's the likely reader? And is it based somewhere in fact? The best fiction (generally) reminds us of real-life experiences. Your company's message should do the same. Otherwise, you'll end up with a promise or premise that just doesn't connect, no matter how pretty and clever it might be.

So, the next time you have to present some data or provide a convincing argument, try using a story. My guess is that it'll work quite well. At the very least, you'll provide your audience some relief from the mental desert of bullet points and bar graphs.


EVK4 said...

I don't really have anything to add to this other than it is an excellent post.

Anonymous said...


this is your stomach talking.
You need more Ovaltine!
And how are your old friends
Mike McGuinness and Brent Keltner
doing? Those were the days--
beer, babes and Mexican beaches!

Tim Rickards said...


Not sure what you're talking about regarding Ovaltine. I always hated the stuff.

As for Mike and Brent, I haven't spoken to either of them for years...and we never drank beer or went to Mexico together as far as I can remember.

What about you?

Anonymous said...

Actually you might consider
Malto-meal. Good stuff.
Cool blog. Except no babes.

--Mike Franti
PS Stop by my pad some time; I'll
let you watch me make love
to one of my many groupies, who are
generally very *hot.*

Tim Rickards said...

Somehow I don't think you are Mike Franti. The whole groupie thing, even tongue in cheek, doesn't sound like him. And if you're not him, go troll somewhere else.

But, just to be sure, here's a test:

What words did you have written on your rubber/playground basketball about the time you got back from Canada?