It’s all about storytelling
Last year, as my wife and I were watching Project Runway All Stars, I pointed out that the show was clearly building up to a massive event regarding the young designer Sam. A couple of weeks earlier, Sam had accepted voluminous praise from the judges for his garment without pointing out that it had actually been made mostly by his teammate, Kini.
The next week, he had received praise again, and another contestant said, “Maybe we should all flirt with the judges.” Now, sure enough, another designer appeared to have given him the idea that won him a round of admiration of the judges. “You see?” I told my wife. “Like I said, they’re building to something.” In fact, Sam’s lack of gratitude and support from the judges ran throughout that season, rearing its head periodically in dramatic exchanges.
My wife Sarah lamented the lack of “reality” in reality tv, but honestly, that’s why it’s now called “unscripted” television. It’s never really been about reality. It’s just that rather than the story being written beforehand by writers, then acted out, it’s being written in the editing room, like Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, which filmed chimpanzees chewing and then fit story and dialogue to it later.
The pervasiveness of storytelling has become increasingly clear to me. I understood a decade ago, when I was writing for IBM developerWorks, that content was important; I’d seen it then as a way of enlarging the market you want to reach, of increasing the number of potential customers by giving the skills that are necessary for using your product to anyone willing to take them.
Now I realize that it’s much more than that.
No, the more I think about it, the more I realize that there’s a reason that all big companies are, in a sense, media companies, even if they don’t realize it. (And you can bet that the biggest and most successful do realize it.) In the early to mid part of the 20th century, stories in media included direct, “native” advertising. Characters drank specific brands of coffee, smoked a particular kind of cigarette, drank Carnation evaporated milk (“from contented cows”). Nobody questioned it.
Nowadays the commercials have moved outside of the programming, but the best of them are taking on a narrative quality of their own. Think of the best commercials you’ve seen lately. The dog raised with the Budweiser horses. The little boy in the Darth Vader costume starting the car with the Force. Even the guy eating Doritos at his wife’s ultrasound. They all have a story.
Whereas before companies were inserting advertising and marketing into content, now they’re creating content that includes their advertising and marketing. Marriott has its own digital agency and produces short films, such as the Two Bellmen movies.
And why shouldn’t they? Humans don’t just crave story, they live it every day. Think about it; your day has a narrative flow to it; you get up, you go to work, you deal with conflict, you come home, you wind down, you go to bed. Sure, it may not be a particularly exhilarating scene in the plot of your life, but it does have that narrative flow.
In fact, if you look at things from a more distant perspective, you can see story in the general flow of your life. You get a new job, you’re excited about it, you’re enjoying it, and things either go well until some high point victory that you celebrate, or they go south until some climactic event causes you to look for something else.
It’s all story.
That’s why it works.