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Are we sick of storytelling yet?

Is there anyone left on the planet who doesn’t know the ‘science of storytelling’? I reckon about one in four TED talks currently touch on the subject. Savvy brands have always harnessed the power of a good yarn. But right now it seems brands are more interested than ever in storytelling.

Just in case you missed it, here’s why stories matter: as humans we’re hard-wired to react to them; they appeal to the old, emotional, bit of our brain. It’s the bit that controls decision-making and action, so if you want to get someone to do something (follow you, buy your stuff), a good story beats a rational explanation hands down.

Does our now near-universal awareness of how and why stories work reduce their power to seduce us? Certainly, it’s made me ever more critical of brands telling duff stories. Take BlackBerry’s recent open letter to ‘valued customers, partners, and fans’. It was awful in many ways, but it was at its most clunky when it was pulling storytelling moves: ‘Countless world-changing decisions have been finalised, deals closed and critical communications made via Blackberry.’ That’s Textbook Story Technique #7: paint a picture of your heritage. But here it misfires. You can say exactly the same about the fax machine, after all.

Around the same time, I read McDonald’s Alistair Macrow’s article. He pulled Leadership Storytelling Move 11B: connect a personal experience to a business insight. But making the connection between customer service on a swanky Barbados holiday and getting lunch at a McDonald’s is hardly the sort of story that would inspire the masses.

And then, just when I was beginning to worry that I was getting too cynical by half, I saw London Pride’s poster about how the beer got its name:

‘In the 50s we created a new ale… we just needed a name. There was no Twitter back then, but we asked around London for suggestions all the same, and one in particular was inspired. A flower. But not any old flower. ‘London Pride’… a tough little perennial that grew during the blitz… covering the rubble like tiny beacons of hope.’

It’s a shameless bit of patriotic hyperbole, but dammit if it didn’t make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

And then last week on a flight to Switzerland, idly browsing the in-flight magazine, I was suddenly taken in by an ad for Bremont watches. Now Bremont make watches for US stealth bomber pilots. And they’re based in Henley-on-Thames (‘the home of cream teas, rowing and cute waterfowl’). Their ad told their story in a way that was completely unexpected for a posh watch company, yet bang on for a plucky British company based somewhere deeply uncool. (It was the page after Patek Phillipe’s sick-making ‘you don’t own a Patek Phillipe, you just look after it for the next generation’.) As soon as I landed, I Googled Bremont to find out more. And that’s despite the fact that I think the whole idea of status watches is completely ridiculous.

It hardly counts as a scientific experiment, but it was a timely reminder: even when we know all the storytelling moves, a good yarn still gets right through and moves you.


Nick Parker is managing partner of The Writer and author of The Exploding Boy and other tiny tales.