Storytelling – how humanity creates order in the world

This is a guest post by Paul Radziwill, Director at Modular Marketing.

“In the beginning was the word.”
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

Stories have driven our morals, culture and personal decisions since the beginning of language – stories like Aesop’s Fables. Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. The Holy Books, Jesus’ parables. Greek, Roman and Norse mythology. The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. 

The Wire. Breaking Bad. Coronation Street. Contestants’ back-stories on talent shows. Newton’s apple. Einstein’s school report. Urban myths. How Virgin Airlines started on a blackboard at a Puerto Rico airport.

Martin Luther King’s dream.

Stories describe a change of state

Fact or fiction, they help us empathise, step outside of ourselves, suspend disbelief, be open to what may happen, learn from it. And take action.  Here are some more great opening lines. Notice how they prepare us for a change of state. Do you know what they’re from?

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f***ing big television…  

“But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else.” 

We’re sponges. We soak up stories

Every business needs to connect strongly with customers – past, current and future. One of the most excellent (and fun) ways to do this is through story. In the past many businesses could get away without stories, but it’s more difficult today. We’re now deluged with information and anything that doesn’t have a story, a hook, will get swept away. If you don’t have a story then all you’re generating are checklists and instructions… spreadsheets and bullet points…. conclusions that however insightful, won’t grab people’s attention.

Without stories, your business will probably still retain clients and win new clients. But your PowerPoints, proposals blogs and bullet points won’t sing. Your clients may not find it easy to refer you. Great businesses have always been storytellers. Your rivals that have a great story, a “why” that resonates, and interesting people, will steal a march on you.

Rules of storytelling from the master

David Mamet is a prolific playwright, screenwriter and film director. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross and his screenplays include The Verdict, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Untouchables, Ronin and Hannibal.

In the early 2000s he worked on a drama The Unit. There must have been a crisis among the writers because he fired off a strongly written memo to them ALL IN CAPITALS. Here’s a nugget:

“WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF INFORMATION INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.
WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER [sic] DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.”

The memo is widely shared. I urge you to read the complete version here

The Unit was cancelled after four seasons, so I don’t know if the memo rescued anything. But this memo – the legacy of The Unit – is one of the most beautiful, concise and clear guides to storytelling ever. Take note, especially when you write for business. Thank you David Mamet.

It’s not hard to inject story into your business

Start by asking: Who wants what? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now? And leave out lots of information. A good story with nuances and metaphors obliges the reader or viewer to fill the gaps and derive meaning. 

Here are some themes you can use to shape your story.

  • Stories about your clients – you can call them case studies. Cisco is great at this https://www.cisco.com/c/m/en_us/never-better/index.html
  • Stories about what could go wrong. See Norton’s amazing documentary https://us.norton.com/mostdangeroustown/index.html#!/en-US/movie
  • Stories about your company, your origins, the idea that started it all, your business purpose and how you’re different.
  • Stories about the people you touch – your employees your customers, your community, the reader / viewer, your family and your planet.
  • Stories about your specialisation – your industry, the technology that you champion. Your innovations, how you’re shaping the future.

Paul Radziwill | +44 07740 585 661 | paul@modularmarketing.co.uk www.linkedin.com/in/paulradziwill | modularmarketing.co.uk

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