In Jonathan Gottschall’s recent book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, the author argues that humans are set apart from other animals by their ability to tell stories. This capacity to communicate verbally and craft narratives defines us by making it possible to transfer complex information to one another, cohere as a society around a central theme and to persuade and influence each other. In fact, Gottschall argues that narrative has such a strong power over the human mind that “fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.”
While this fact seems shocking when stated so plainly, it’s actually quite clear when you look at history. Almost all major movements, whether political, economic or commercial, have offered people clearly defined narratives that, just like a good book, they can get absorbed in. And the idea isn’t new. Take Manifest Destiny as an example: unlike many major political movements, it was never clearly spelled out in policy, and existed almost purely as a national narrative – a story driving major real-world results, rather than the other way around. Storytelling applies for businesses as well, for whom a strong story builds brand affinity in a way that nothing else can. Carefully crafting and distributing that story is essential to building a successful brand.
The problem for today’s storytellers, however, is how to craft engaging stories in a media/social media landscape that’s exponentially more populated than ever before. Every year, brands and businesses have to compete with more stories (and, often, entirely new forms of media) for customers’ attention. So how do we keep people interested in the stories we want to tell?
The answer, I believe, is to invite more viewer action. Creating space in your brand’s narrative for a viewer to act, to question or to feel involved engages them and keeps them focused. Think of it this way: your brand’s story should be less newspaper and more video game (or choose-your-own-adventure novel, if you prefer) – if it isn’t designed to elicit frequent viewer input, it’s not having as full an effect as it could. One way to achieve this is to either omit, or not explicitly mention, all the benefits of your product – while a clear explanation of your product’s value proposition is great in a sales environment, building interest in a brand’s story works much better if you leave out some information and let the reader do some digging themselves.
Though this can seem counterintuitive, we have to remember that the best stories often strategically omit information in order to engage the agency and curiosity of the reader. For example, “The following pages will interest you, as they detail the difficulties caused by Anna Karenina’s relationship with Count Vronsky” is a significantly less compelling introduction than “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” All too often, brands take the former approach, focusing solely on fitting in as much information as possible before the reader puts down the magazine or changes the channel; great stories work because they invite the reader in and make them want to turn the page themselves.
Another way to encourage viewer action is to subtly incorporate references to cultural memes that only a certain part of your viewership will understand, and leave the viewers to connect the dots themselves. Everyone has had the feeling of sharing a secret at some point, and creating that for your viewers is a great strategy. I recently had that experience with the latest Volkswagen ad, “Mask.” In it, a man goes into a convenience store wearing a ski mask and, while clearly making the store clerk very nervous, proceeds to buy all his items in an orderly manner. He and his friends then drive off, while the audience enjoys the joke.
What’s remarkable about it is the music playing in the background: it’s famous online as the “Trololo” song. While the full story of the song (which is actually quite interesting) can be found in this article, suffice it to say that it’s the anthem of internet “trolls”: people who perform pranks online for the sole purpose of confusing or frustrating people. I had heard the song many times before, and recognized the clip that was subtly inserted into the TV spot. Because the reference to the Trololo song was not too overt, I felt more connected to Volkswagen when I was able to catch the reference. Most importantly for Volkswagen, I felt like I was in on their joke – and that’s a very valuable feeling for the ad’s target demographic to have.
These storytelling techniques are effective because the human mind is predisposed to search for narrative when presented with information. As a species, we cannot resist the uniquely human need to weave a web of meaning when one is not explicitly presented to us. Giving viewers the space to do so not only makes them more engaged, it also increases brand affinity by making viewers feel like they have helped define what the brand signifies to them. Believe it or not, sometimes there’s nothing worse than giving your viewers a clear, straightforward idea of your product.
Zach Pearson is an Account Executive at Greenough. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_p_pearson