The Story is the Thing

Hamlet Yale Rep - University Theatre

In October of 2012, I attended Harvard Business School’s Marketing Innovation Conference in Cambridge, MA. I went with fairly high expectations but, so my own surprise, it was because of John Skipper, CEO of ESPN, that it became an experience that continues to stick with me. All of the other tremendous speakers and panelists were interesting and thought-provoking but it was Skipper’s keynote on storytelling that left the unshakeable impact. Here was the CEO of a mega-sports network unexpectedly focusing on the importance of story over such ESPN basics like top ten highlight reels, grammatically inept jokes, or game statistics. Looking back on it today, the true shock factor of it all is that Skipper wasn’t simply correct in his vision for ESPN, it was prescient nature of that vision.

Looking at the marketing and advertising landscape at present, it is clear that content is the new ROI. Brands want customers to be engaged and not simply to be blasted and bombasted by a plethora of ads. It is easy to spend money on promoting ads all over social media, buying banner ads, creating billboards and the like to ensure visibility to customers but it is no longer enough. Case in point, Google just revealed that 56% of digital ads served are never seen. So if visibility alone does not ensure success, the logical focus is on creating meaningful content that truly engages potential and existing consumers alike. Which leads back to the importance, and simmering power, of stories.

Think back to the last time you had a really good story to tell. Perhaps you narrowly escaped death with your awesome driving skills, or you finally asked out that flirtatious co-worker, or you got nearly got mugged; it doesn’t matter what the story is, it matters that you want to tell it. To have a good story is to want to share it, like found cash, not sharing it is just unrealized potential. Stories carry weight and add value to what can be the mundaness of daily, ordinary life. At a time when Christmas parties are running rampant, do you really want to be that person that talks about your job, your pet or how terrible the weather is or do you want to tell captivating stories?

“I long to here the story….which must captivate the ear strangely.”
– William Shakespeare

The point isn’t that we all have to have incredible experiences that become incredible stories, the point is that we are enamored by stories. The ones we tell, the ones we hear, the ones we read, the ones watch, the ones the ones the ones. Life is too short to simply check out the statistics of your fantasy football team, scroll through tweets or unwind to reality television. With so much information constantly at our fingertips, it is easy to have a “click-through” life where just go on auto-mode and keep searching, scrolling and clicking. And we know this. It is why we love engaging and connecting with stories in any form.

Those in the advertising industry have already keyed in on this change and power-players like John Skipper have been in on it for years. Now I could argue that knowing about it doesn’t mean your good at it, as any five minutes watching SPORTSCENTER will clearly show, but the long-term effort is still necessary. Having a story-telling philosophy allows for an emphasis when tilling the ever-growing mounds of data to connect the relevant dots and find the hidden story within. As your algebra tried to tell you, it isn’t enough to get to an answer, the journey to it is just as important. Finding out that your team won the game is great, but watching the story of the game unfold is better, much better.

My advice is to you is to listen for the story. They are everywhere and they are desperate for an audience. Whether it is Bacardi Rum artfully telling their untamable history, or watching two competing viewpoints on Showtime’s Golden Globe nominee The Affair, or listening to Hozier plead for you to be taken to church or even your mother telling you how the cat got out, the story is there. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the protagonist knew that the play was thing to get the conscience of the deceitful king but for today’s consumers, the story is the thing…

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