The Story of the People Who Told Stories

Storytelling is not dead yet. In fact, it’s getting better.

StoriesOnce upon a time, we grew up learning things from people who told stories. We entertained ourselves with people who told stories. We enriched our minds, constructed our faiths and built our businesses through people who told stories.

Then, one day, from deep within a dark, foreboding cave near San Jose – unearthing itself from decades’ worth of Red Bull cans, pizza boxes and Foosball tables – the big, bad Internet reared its pixelly head. It gobbled up all the storytellers. Then it pooped them all out again in pretty JPEGs, cool GIFs and 200-word chunks of bullet points.

The end.

At least, that’s the conclusion we’re offered in a recent post on Adobe’s in which Pum Lefubre, chief creative officer at Design Army, declares that “Storytelling is dead.”

The post cites a study released by Microsoft a few months ago that has received plenty of publicity on its own. It declares that the “human attention span is 8.25 seconds,” shorter than that of a goldfish.

It’s time we all stopped using this study to declare that the human neurological, intellectual and emotional pathways that developed over 200,000 years of constantly changing and evolving media have been completely reconfigured by the Internet in just 20 years.

Without wading too deeply into the weeds of the study itself, let’s just say that the testing was measuring brainwave activity of people assigned a “gamified” task: noting the sequence of different objects, or classifying vowels and consonants and odd or even numbers. Not exactly the kind of riveting activity one plans for a big Friday night.

Sadly, the

Sadly, the “Methodology” section of the Microsoft study does not explain how they measured the attention span of a goldfish.

And the 8.25-second figure is for only one type of attention: Transient attention, a short-term response to a new or different stimulus that distracts you from something else. This is actually a good thing, because it means we are able to more quickly transition back to selective sustained attention – the task we were focusing on. The study, curiously, doesn’t offer a duration on this … mostly likely because it wouldn’t offer the clickbait potential of a comparison to a member of the carp family.

There’s more than one way to skin a fish.

In all fairness, much of the advice Ms. Lefubre offers marketing communicators as a “replacement” for “storytelling” is sound advice. Eliminating unnecessary messaging is always a good thing to do – including a tagline if, indeed, it isn’t needed. Understand the value of less as more. And, by all means, don’t “dumb down” your material and spoon-feed your audience. Leave something to the imagination to draw them in.

After all, those just happen to be some of the key roles of, um, storytelling.

The examples that accompany the article – all very fine work – don’t demonstrate the death of storytelling; they simply represent another way – a more visual way – of telling a story. Sometimes this is the most effective way. Sometimes it’s not.

It depends on what story you’re trying to tell. And to whom you’re telling it. A poster for a ballet company’s performance of Alice in Wonderland isn’t exactly telling the same story, to the same audience, as a message to a medical device manufacturer suggesting using a silicone elastomer over PVC, latex or TPE. Nor is a brochure designed to get people – most of whom have no previous connection with the organization – to contribute to a local Habitat for Humanity chapter’s endowment because it was established as a memorial to a beloved former mayor.

Those might need a different kind of story.

‘I’m not dead yet!’

Of course, this is nothing new. I’ve been a marketing communications writer for 39 years. For almost all that time, I’ve heard people say: “Nobody will read anything that long.” “People don’t have the attention span for copy that long.” And, yes, “Storytelling is dead.”

By people selling the next big media thing – and, of course, art directors – storytelling has been rumored dead more than Paul McCartney.

The Internet world didn’t create the shorter-is-always better shibboleth. But it’s determined to accelerate it – hence studies that confirm our shrinking attention spans. (These studies, of course, reinforce the need for devices and software to enable that acceleration. See! They’re telling a story!)

But are people really too impatient to read more than 100 words? Let’s find out, by looking at what was at the top 10 on the New York Times’ best-selling fiction list for one week in June of this year:

  1. Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told By Christian, 576 pages
  2. The Girl on the Train, 336 pages
  3. The Rumor, 384 pages
  4. Tom Clancy Under Fire, 512 pages
  5. Country, 336 pages
  6. The President’s Shadow, 416 pages
  7. The Martian, 387 pages
  8. All the Light We Cannot See, 531 pages
  9. Finders Keepers, 448 pages
  10. In the Unlikely Event, 416 pages

At an average of 250 words per page, those 10 novels average 108,000 words each. And a hell of a lot of people have either bought or downloaded them. It’s not that people won’t take the time to read – or listen to, or watch – a story. They just won’t waste their time with one that’s not told well. E.L. James, apparently, being an exception.

People won’t pay attention to marketing communications messages that don’t tell an interesting, engaging or compelling story. But if you’re telling a good one (or a titillating one that taps into repressed S&M fantasies), people will take the time to read it.

We’re wired for it. Since language developed, we have explained our world, built our businesses, made our reputations and educated our children through the telling of stories. And stories are like products – the ones that survive are the good ones.

I think we’re all a little tired of “brand storytelling” as a puffed-up cliche to describe copywriting. But the process of storytelling is far from dead. As more and more people try to tell more and more stories – and, as they try to tell them the wrong way, or tell them poorly – the ability to tell a story well is growing more important every day.

The businesses that tell them well are the ones that will live happily ever after.