There’s a new short film of Ken Burns talking about story that’s very impressive. Five minutes, but lots of value.
As always, there is the question of how someone with such a bad haircut can make us feel such strong emotions, but that’s all part of the mystery. Burns puts his finger on three critical points about storytelling:
- A Good Story is 1+1=3. All day long, we hear rational stories — “I left the door open, the dog ran away.” “She worked hard, and she graduated first in her class.” But the things that matter most to us are transcendent. Hugh MacLeod put it best when he said The Market for something to believe in is infinite. When we tell stories about our brands, we need to connect it to something transcendent, no matter how prosaic our product may be. Is a junkyard about junk, or is it about finding the one piece that allows you to finish restoring the vintage car that lets you take your road trip, the one you always dreamed of taking with your big brother before he got sick? All of us have something transcendent to talk about, not just a functional truth, but also an emotional truth, no matter what we sell.
- All story is manipulation. Don’t be afraid to push buttons, or use proven techniques. There are tricks of the trade (rule of three, contrast, archetypes) that work because homo sapiens are wired in a particular way. Especially as the white noise builds up online, you need increasingly professional messages to cut through the dull roar. Mamet’s definition of drama is very useful: Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things that prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.
- An emotional truth is something you have to build. Hashtags on Twitter are a great thing. But as many of us are learning, they are respected if your brand is respected. McDonald’s makes a fine product for those who like it, but they haven’t earned the respect of a broad tribe. Their customers’ relationship with the brand is functional. In comparison, John Deere is a tattoo brand — one that its customers maybe don’t revere, but respect. Interestingly, Taco Bell may be closer to John Deere than we’d thought. If your brand doesn’t stand for something yet, it may never be anything more than functional to your customers. And functional is another word for commodity.
All of us are learning how to tell our brand’s stories better. When someone as good as Ken Burns gives advice for free, we’d be foolish not to take it. Bad haircut or not.
By Adrian Blake