Category Archives: Storytelling

When One Story Ends, Another Begins

We hope you are enjoying our approach to this blog. It is a place where experts from across the nation are sharing their thoughts about a common theme that relates to marketing, communications and involvement for our ever-changing world.

With the closing of April, our communications theme of the month – storytelling – is also coming to a close.  In the past weeks, Collaborative Services’ blog was buoyed by wonderful guest interviewees who brought new insights into the storytelling theme. We would like to thank them all for their valuable time and effort, as well as their willingness to generously share their ideas. They are:

Rich Cherry, Executive Director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative.

Jon Franklin, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper reporter.

Ashley Kingsley, Co-founder of Daily Deals for Moms in Denver.

Nedra Kline Weinreich, Professor of social marketing at UCLA’s School of Public Health and Founder and President of Weinreich Communications.

Kendall Haven, a Senior Research Scientist, Storyteller and Author of the book, Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story.

Caren S. Neile, the Founder and Director of the South Florida Storytelling Project at Florida Atlantic University.

We learned much from their thoughtful responses to our questions. We learned from a poodle how memorable a moment and a story can be. We learned how the circuitry in our brains is hard-wired to respond to stories. We learned what makes the most interesting man in the world so interesting, as well as what he has in common with miracle whip and a little boy in a Darth Vader costume. We learned not just the elements of a good story, but also how not to be cast under the spell of a story that is up to no good purpose.

In addition to our interviewees, we want to also credit the experts that we mentioned in our commentaries. These experts – Tyler Cowen, John Sadowsky, Terrence Gargiulo, Stephen Denning, Luis Masur, Jean Gianfagna, Jay Conger and Daniel Brookes – gave us additional ideas to share and carry forward in our own work.

All month, we learned that storytelling is more than a story, it’s a strategy and a powerful one at that.

Now, we unveil our theme for May and June. We’ve paired these months to highlight words and word choice. These are the building blocks of all messages.  So, in May, we’ll get curious about words. We’ll try to answer questions such as where did all these words come from and why do we tend to use only a small number them? We’ll look at how you can create a new word or give new meaning to an existing one. If you’re one of the many who are hooked on Words with Friends, you might recognize yourself in commentaries later in the month about the cultural ways we are playing with words.  In June, we’ll look to what words mean in some of the most rapidly evolving fields – do you know the difference between weather and climate, smart and intelligent, clean and green? June will be our month to hear from experts in the fields offering those terms and ultimately changing how we go about our lives. Hold tight because we’re featuring everything from Merriam Webster’s Dictionary to NASA. We look forward to finishing out our very own spring season and having these topics move all of us into summer.

Happy reading and let us know how we’re doing. We look forward to hearing from you –

Catherine Smith, President
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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The Voldemort of Stories

During the months of March and April, the Collaborative Services’ blog focused on the power of storytelling in marketing, communications and public involvement. Much of the content from our esteemed experts explained how powerful stories can be. And, no question, they indeed can be quite the messaging tool.

But there’s another story about stories to tell – a cautionary one. We are all consumers of stories we are hearing, as well as the ones we tell ourselves. So we are rounding out this series by taking a lesson about the dark the dark side of happily ever after.

First, yes, you should be wary of stories. That’s the opinion of Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University and at the Center for the Study of Public Choice. Here’s a link to a speech he gave in 2009, warning of the power of stories.

As an economist, he worries we can be too easily seduced by a story and make an ill-advised decision based upon it. Since we’re biologically programmed to respond to a story, we are vulnerable to them, he says. So we need to be careful of the stories we hear and what we choose to believe. Indeed, the better the story, the more wary you should be, he warns.

His thought: even though we love stories, we should also try to lessen our dependence on them when it comes to how we perceive our options.

Why?

(Credit: Continuum)

Well, he cites Christopher Booker’s, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, which offers that there are only a limited number of story lines. They are: monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. So if you have a tendency to think in stories, you are “telling yourself the same thing over and over again,” Cowen says in his presentation.

He also referenced a study that asked people how best to describe their lives. More than 50 percent said, “journey.”  Another 11 percent said, “a battle.” Still another 8 percent said, “novel.”  All, of course, are stories. But the right answer, Cowen suggests is actually, “mess.” But few people identified their lives this way even though life is often not a simple, straightforward narrative. It can be messy.

Mess isn’t bad, according to Cowen. Mess can be “liberating” and “empowering and “a way of drawing from multiple strengths.” His advice: Stop being so reliant on story themes to make sense of your life and “be comfortable with messy.”

He’s not alone in having concerns about stories and their ability to manipulate.

Which brings us to the second cautionary advice: beware the storyteller as well. John Sadowsky, a professor of Leadership at the Greboble Graduate School of Business in France, writes: “Storytelling is not the problem. Storytelling is merely a device for communication, a tool that can be used to lead or to mislead.

He points to the most infamous act of storytelling abuse, that of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler: “The example of Adolf Hitler, whose brilliantly crafted speeches intertwined personal stories with symbolic tales from German mythology, demonstrates how a charismatic and manipulative individual can use storytelling for sinister purposes.  Clearly, Hitler is an extreme case, an intriguing study in charisma’s dark side and in the use of storytelling to manipulate on a grand scale.”  For his full blog post, go here.

Hitler addressing a rally
(Credit: Unknown)

A third caution about stories: stretching beyond poetic license. This one comes from Terrence L. Gargiulo, author, international speaker, organizational development consultant, and group-process facilitator specializing in the use of stories based in Monterey. He tackled the subject in this white paper, Leaders & Stories: Thin Line Between Manipulation & Truthfulness.

“There are countless examples of how people abuse the power of tapping into the emotions and imaginations of others to coercively manipulate their constructs of reality. Clear violations such as con artists are easy to classify.” He doesn’t go as far as to say that stories have to be completely truthful, though, because stories, at their best, are “creative acts.” He quotes Mark Twain, “sometimes you have to lie a little bit to tell the truth.”

Gargiulo writes, “Stories told in the moment will adapt themselves to the language, vocabulary, and experience of listeners. It is a mark of an integrated storyteller to share stories in a way fitting to the audience. If that means elaborating upon an aspect of the story or coloring it with a nuance of detail previously untold or which stretches the factuality than I do not view this as either coercive or manipulative.”

So what’s the best way to hear a story? It’s in our power to listen, analyze, question and investigate.

We may be programmed to be captivated by stories, but we don’t have to be under their spell.

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Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services

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Stories on the Stump, Part II

Today, we continue our look into politics and storytelling with insight from Caren S. Neile, who is the founder and director of the South Florida Storytelling Project at Florida Atlantic University. Over the years, she has studied and written about this form of storytelling.

In an article she wrote for Toastmasters International, she pulls examples from both the past and recent history to illustrate how politicians use storytelling techniques. For instance, she notes how Hillary Clinton, when running for president in 2007, used the following story to show that she understood the importance of student loans because she herself relied on them.

Back when I went to college, my late father said to me that he’d saved enough money – he was a small-business man – to pay for room, board and tuition, but if I wanted to buy a book or anything else, I had to earn the money. That was our deal. That was fine with me. Then I graduated from college, and I decided I wanted to go to law school. So I told my father, and he said, “That’s not part of the deal.” 

So I had to get a little scholarship, and I had to keep working. But then I borrowed money. And I borrowed money from the federal government. I borrowed it, as I recall, at something like two percent interest. It did not bankrupt me. It did not cause me to have to take a job on Wall Street. Instead, I got to do what I wanted to do.

Clinton’s use of story, no doubt, resonated with many people, both in college and graduates, who needed student loans to afford their educations. The story also illustrates that the current Secretary of State wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth, that she worked hard to reach her goals.

A young Hillary Clinton during her days at Wellesley
(Credit: Corbis)

Just how far back does this practice go? Well, according to Dr. Neile, pretty far back. She writes, “The classical rhetoricians of ancient Greece used both the introduction narrative and the parable to pump up their speeches in the first democracy.”

You can read the full article here.

Ms. Neile is an expert storyteller herself. In addition her to academic work, she also is producer and co-host of The Public Storyteller, which airs on Miami public radio WLRN. She’s also the former chair of the National Storytelling Network and a founding editor of the international academic journal Storytelling, Self, Society.

We welcome her thoughts.

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Generally, what makes storytelling effective in the political arena?
Three main characteristics make storytelling so effective for politicians. (1) It kindles our emotions, which brain science tells us helps us remember better, (2) it establishes a bond because it helps us identify with the politician by allowing us to walk in his/her shoes (if it’s a personal story) or by walking alongside him or her (if it’s not), and (3) it makes us feel that there is order and stability associated with this person, in part because stories contain not only conflict, but also resolution.

Politicians always seem to want to come across as the common man or woman. They always wear jeans at town hall meetings. Does storytelling help with this goal of relating?
Absolutely. We storytellers talk about the “co-creation” of a story. That is to say, the storyteller depends on the audience’s reactions, or at least imaginations, to complete it. In an important subconscious sense, that puts us on the same plain with the politician who tells us the story. In addition, storytelling is something you do with your friend or neighbor. It doesn’t come across as a lecture, even though it may serve the same purpose.

Do you think all speeches should include a story? Could a speech work without one?
I never say “all” or “never”! But in general, a story—even an introductory, attention-getting narrative or an example in the course of the speech—helps build bridges and move mountains, for the reasons stated above.

Are there certain common themes that politicians seek to get across through stories?
Well, stories most commonly take place in the past tense. So politicians’ stories often center around (1) where they’ve been and what they’ve experienced, (2) where their constituents have been and what they’ve experienced. Depending on the desired effect, the content could contain adversity or glory. A future-oriented story, on the other hand, might be a visualization, or vision, of what was to come with, or without, the politician at the helm.

In your writings, you pointed out stories can be used for bad intentions. You made reference to the Third Reich reworking fairy tales to incorporate anti-Semitic sentiments. How can we, as the audience, learn to beware of such manipulations?
Six words: critical thinking, critical thinking, critical thinking! We need to ask ourselves: Why is this person telling this story? Have I experienced contradictory stories or heard them from people I know or trust? Does the story make sense, given what I know to be true about the world?

Nazi fairy tale example: man in a SS style uniform as the savior of Little Red Riding Hood
(Credit: DEUTSCHES FILMINSTITUT)

What is one of your favorite speeches of all time?
You are probably expecting me to respond with a speech by a seasoned politician, but in fact, one of the best speeches I ever heard was the winning speech at the 2000 World Championship of Public Speaking, delivered by Ed Tate in Miami, Florida. It was called “One of Those Days.” 

What story did it tell? Why do you think that story worked at the particular place and time that speech was given?
The entire speech was a story. Ed told about an experience at an airport, where he behaved politely toward a beleaguered United Airlines customer service rep and encouraged a bully to do the same. Tate’s speaking order was midway through the contestants, and frankly, the audience was tired. But his speech perked us all up with its humor, its opportunities for audience participation (we all joined in on the oft-repeated refrain) and, most importantly, the story it told, which engaged and interested us.

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With the election nearing, we’ll be hearing many more stories to try to convince us to vote for a certain candidate. Indeed, storytelling is a much of the political arsenal as the financial war chest and army of volunteers.

But listen carefully. We’re not buying laundry detergent. We’re choosing our leaders, both locally and nationally, at a time when the stakes rarely have been as high. We’ll end the week with some words of wisdom about critical thinking to help us differentiate good stories from bad.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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Stories on the Stump – Part I

You may have noticed that it’s an election year…

And, we couldn’t help but notice the use of stories during this election cycle. For instance, San Diego mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher tells the story of how surviving an ambush as a Marine in Iraq helped shape his views on the importance of giving back to society. Here’s a link to the full story.

Another mayoral candidate, current San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, tells the story of her humble beginnings on her campaign website. Her first job was as a junior clerk/typist for the county. She went to law school at night. She now has a plaque in her office that reads, “The clerk helping in your division today may be your boss tomorrow.”

As our interviewees this month have described, stories are a great way to connect to people and to get a message across in an easily understood manner.

In the political world, stories can help you get votes or garner support for your initiatives when you’re running for office and can help you explain new policies and the progress being made on an issue when you’re in office.

Stories have other political powers, too. They can help keep an anxious nation calm and focused even in the most trying of times. Think of Winston Churchill during World War II. Standing before the House of Commons in 1940, he described how Britain would never surrender:

“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!”

Winston Churchill
(Credit: AP)

As we learned earlier from our storytelling research and collaborators, this speech has the makings of a classic story structure. There is a hero (the citizens of Great Britain), an adversary (the Nazis) and a resolution (despite the challenges, surrender is not an option).

Our own country’s Abraham Lincoln was also a master storyteller, using stories and humor to calm our citizens during the darkest days of the Civil War. Luis P. Masur, the director of American Studies at Trinity College, wrote a piece on Lincoln’s ability for the New York Times:  “If his physical appearance was gawky, even off-putting, his joke-telling drew people to him and made him likable. Lincoln shrewdly used stories and parables in more complex ways as well. They would disarm opponents, or offer an easily digestible truism that seemed to support whatever position he might be taking.”

One of the five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address
(Credit: Library of Congress)

Lincoln’s words to this day resonate. The Gettysburg Address is considered one of our nation’s greatest speeches, and it too tells a story: The heroes? The men who died on the battlefield. The adversary? The war that divided the nation. The resolution: Their sacrifice will not be in vain, that the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Stephen Denning, an expert in communication and leadership innovation, offers that storytelling as a leadership tool is more important than ever given the vast challenges – from global warming to the globalization of the economy – we now face. “Storytelling is one of the few rhetorical tools able to generate the passion needed to win active support for the actions needed to deal with such deep, pervasive, rapid change,” he wrote in a encyclopedia chapter on leadership storytelling. Click on this link to see it.

But this is not simple, he warns. If you tell a poor story, you can lose, not gain, support. If it’s not true or if it stretches the truth, the story can cause backlash. He also warns of telling stories that are so elaborate that they immediately raise suspicion. Even people at the top of their political game make mistakes with stories.

One cautionary example Denning gives concerns Al Gore, a presidential candidate in 2000. At a debate, he closed with a story about a 79-year-old woman named Winifred Skinner who claimed to go out every day to collect cans to raise money to pay for her prescriptions medicines. He claimed she traveled all the way from Iowa in a Winnebago with her poodle to attend. Well, the story when investigated turned out to be mostly untrue, harming Gore’s campaign.

Such gaffes in today’s presidential campaign continue. Presidential Republican candidate Mitt Romney recently used the story and backdrop of a shuttered drywall company in Ohio as a staging area for a speech attacking current economic policies. But when investigated, it turned out the plant had closed under a previous administration. This caused a firestorm of fact checking. In response, the Romney campaign was left to explain that their emphasis was on why the factory had not reopened rather than why it had closed. This again shows a wrong story is worse for a campaign than no story.

So the use of story in the political arena has tremendous power. It can help people understand complex issues when done right and it can hurt credibility when done wrong.

Tomorrow, we will offer more insight on political storytelling as we turn to Caren S. Neile, who directs the South Florida Storytelling Project at Florida Atlantic University and who has studied this form of storytelling extensively.

Then, we will end the week by exploring the dark side of stories and whether stories can be so alluring that we may be enticed to follow the messages they bring even if they are not in our best interest. We will have links to experts such as Tyler Cowen, an economist, who argues we should be less reliant on stories than we are.

So, continue telling and enjoying stories while this week we identify how to tell a good story from a bad one.

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Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services

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The Science in Storytelling, Part II

Today, we continue our discussion with Kendall Haven, author of Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. The project was quite the undertaking. According to his website, he gathered evidence from 16 different fields of scientific research, including neural biology, developmental psychology, neural linguistics, clinical psychology, cognitive sciences, information theory, neural net modeling, education theory, knowledge management theory, anthropology, organization theory, narratology, medical science, narrative therapy, and, of course, storytelling and writing.

And that evidence has “shown that this has evolutionarily rewired human brains to automatically think, understand, and remember through stories. Applying the science of story is the key to the art of effective communication for anyone who needs to inform, inspire, or educate.”

We share more of his insights today.

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What if, anything, in your research surprised you?
Half way through my research I suddenly (and, surprisingly for the first time) wondered what would happen if the research I uncovered came to conclusions different from what I had been preaching and lecturing for (at that time) well over a decade. My biggest surprise was that all of the research I found – remember that virtually none of it was conducted with an intent to look at or to investigate story, but to explore how the human brain and mind worked – not only exactly supported the structural architecture for effective stories that I had been using, but also that, while groping to explain their conclusions, many of these cognitive and neural scientists and developmental psychologists stumbled into using many of the same terms and nomenclature that I had developed.

Stories are really very simple things and are intrinsic to how humans think, process information, and interact with the world. I suppose the ultimate surprise is that—at a conscious level—we are not all intimately and articulately aware of the terms and elements of story, of the effective process of oral storytelling, and of the immense power and value of both. It should surprise us that it surprises anyone to suddenly discover (consciously) what they have always intimately known at a subconscious level.

What parts of the brain respond to storytelling? How is that different than the parts of the brain that are activated by facts and figures?
This is a central question of a new multi-year Department of Defense (DARPA) study that officially launches on April 12th of this year. I will be part of that study working with several teams of neurologists. Hold this question for two years. An explicit answer is coming.

Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts Study Webpage
(Credit: DARPA)

Do some people have a stronger connection to stories than others?
I think the wording of the question isn’t quite right. Every human is born with that hardwired neural story net. (Neural scientists call them “neural maps” since we use them to “map” different pieces of information onto each other.) However, your half-billion neurons are in a constant state of war-like turmoil, struggling to create dominant connections, pathways (information super highways), and nets. Those that are used, strengthen. Those that are not used, wither.

You automatically begin to use this powerful story net from birth to understand and to make sense out of the people and events around you. So, every human uses and strengthens their neural story net. However, those exposed to a steady diet of stories should, logically, develop stronger linkages in their story net than would those who are not.

I haven’t seen any research on it. I can’t say how big that difference would be. I haven’t seen any research to indicate a natural distribution of the strength of individual neural story nets across a population and, so, can’t say whether that spread would be significant or not.

Neural map example: A selected fiber tract in purple (right) with its corresponding location from different angles (lower left). The selected fiber tract is then projected in the 3D model, along with other tracts in different colors (upper left).
(Credit: Brown University)

Does it matter the culture? Is storytelling a worldwide phenomenon?
No, it does not matter. This neural story net and the specific elements that define it are global. They exist in very culture that has been studied. How different cultures tend to express those core story elements, and how they are typically presented in a story may differ from culture to culture. But not the core story structure, itself.

Does the way we go about getting our information now – particularly through the Internet – threaten storytelling?
Excellent question. Conjecture abound. Research on this topic does not exist as far as I can find. The same question is regularly asked in relation to the shortening attention span of our western culture. (Actually, I do not believe it is a shift in actual attention span—ability to stay focused and attentive—but rather a shift in our expectations based on how information is routinely delivered.) Again, I have seen no conclusive research on this topic either.

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When it comes to mastering any discipline, it helps for you to know the science behind it. Mr. Haven has certainly been a leader in trying to understand why we like and need stories and how our brains, through evolution, are actually hard-wired to pass along information is this manner. But he also has another important message: Knowing why and how our minds react to stories can help you better craft and communicate your message. In short, you can gain an advantage by knowing what is going on inside our minds as we develop or listen to stories.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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The Science in Storytelling

Why do we like stories? Why do we seem to need them? Why do we still, to this day, find the Iliad so fascinating that Brad Pitt grew his hair really long to star in Troy. (Did Homer’s ancestors get a box office cut?)

There’s science behind storytelling. It’s said that our brains are hard-wired to think in the narrative form. Before we developed the written word, we passed information through stories. You think it’s a coincidence that we like to tell stories around campfires?

Stories also help our recall abilities. Studies show that we remember more when the information comes in the form of a story than a fact-filled presentation.

The subject fascinates, Kendall Haven, a senior research scientist and storyteller. He’s the author of the book, Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story.

There is indeed a scientific process to storytelling, Haven says. And knowing that can help any business, agency or organization come up with better communication strategies and messaging.

As with our other blog contributors, Haven has a life story that is also fascinating. The Northern California resident is a West Point graduate who also has a Master’s Degree in Oceanography. He’s written 27 books and his storytelling clients include NASA and the United Way of America.

Over the next two days, the Collaborative Services blog will feature Haven’s answers to a number of questions we posed to him about this fascinating subject. We begin with why he researched and wrote his book and what conclusions he discovered.

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Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story

What prompted you to write the book, “Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story?”
Two answers: first, I was maneuvered into a challenge—almost a dare—by a NASA senior exec. I had just presented a workshop for NASA science writers on using story structure for their public outreach articles, claiming—as we all intuitively know to be true—that story structure was a more effective way to organize and present their information. In front of the assembled room of writers, he challenged me to back up my claim with proof. I “gladly” accepted the challenge—even though at the time I was not at all sure that I would be able to find any hard, quantitative, rigorous scientifically acceptable evidence, let alone a “proof.” I feared I would have to rely on massed anecdotal experiences. The book is the result of that research effort. The proof is readily abundant, consistent, rigorous, and overwhelming in both its volume and in its unbridled and enthusiastic acclaim of the benefits of story.

Second answer: Even in the early 1980’s, when I first became active in the National Storytelling Association, we all bemoaned the lack of hard evidence that we could use to convince skeptical administrators and bureaucrats of the value of our storytelling programs. When, in the early-to-mid 90’s, I was on the board of National Association for the Perpetuation and Preservation of Storytelling and the National Storytelling Association that lack of research evidence came up over and over. All agreed that “someone should do the research!” The problem is that controlled research is both expensive and time consuming. Neural research is prohibitively expensive. Storytelling, at that time, was not a glitzy topic that could attract sizable research dollars.

I, and a number of other tellers, snuck in small studies as we could. Most were impressive in their conclusions. But none were either big enough or controlled enough to merit publication. After the NASA challenge, I jumped into the process of sifting through over 240,000 pages of research from 16 separate fields of science (the basis for Story Proof) to see if we could—once and for all—put to rest the complaint that “we don’t have any research to prove our storytelling programs have real value and merit.”

So why is story structure actually hard-wired into our brains?
In part, this is a “which-came-first, the-chicken-or-the-egg” question. I’ll answer here with the majority opinion of the researchers. For well over 100,000 years before humans had written language, they communicated all essential history, information, concepts, events, attitudes, values, etc. in story form AND they archived (saved and remembered) those pieces of information in story form in human memory. 100,000 years of reliance on story form and on the oral storytelling process to both communicate and to archive (remember) all essential information has literally rewired human brains so that you (we) are born with a fixed (hardwired) neural story net. That net has been tested and identified in babies as young as 2 months old. That net automatically processes all incoming sensory information through the combined neural centers that create and interpret the specific elements that form the core architecture of effective stories. Those specific centers lie between our major sensory organs (eyes and ears) and our conscious mind (the frontal lobes). You turn everything into story form before you pass it to your conscious mind. We are truly homo narratus (story animals).

Areas of the brain involved in language processing.
(Credit: Wikipedia)

Has this been in anyway an advantage when it comes to our adaptability and survival?
Interesting question. Story thinking has certainly been an integral part of our personal and cultural development. There is certainly a value to gathering sensory information in order to automatically assess goals and motives for the various animals and people that you meet. (That, by the way, is an example of our story-based thinking.) Yet, there is no research that I have seen that has tried to link story-based thinking with survival advantage. Story thinking is simply who and what we are.

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Stay tuned because on Wednesday, Kendall Haven continues to share how it’s not just Brad Pitt that keeps us interested in stories like the Iliad. Although, we’re sure he helps.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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Changing the World One Story at a Time

Can storytelling do more than entertain us? Does it have even greater, more substantial powers? Can stories change the world, change our world, change us and even change our day-to-day behaviors? Yes.

An example: Cigarette smoking. It was once an accepted behavior. People smoked in restaurants, in college classrooms, in sports arenas. People even smoked in hospitals.

Tips from a Former Smoker Campaign
(Credit: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention)

But all that changed as campaign after campaign was introduced to warn people of the dangers of cigarette smoking. And some of that was done by storytelling, including powerful images of people who suffered horrible consequences from smoking. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently started a campaign called, Tips from Smokers, which includes a man who had his larynx removed because of cancer. Here’s a link to the story.

A person who is incorporating the power of storytelling for social change is our next guest blogger, Nedra Kline Weinreich. Nedra teaches a course on social marketing at UCLA’s School of Public Health and she’s the founder and president of Weinreich Communications, a firm that is living up to its tag line – “Change For Good.” Weinreich is an expert in the field of social marketing. She is the author of the book Hands-On Social Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide and a prominent blogger on social marketing issues at the Spare Change blog.

Since 1995, the firm has helped a broad range of clients, including state and local health departments, nonprofit organizations and federal agencies. With the power of social marketing and storytelling, she has tackled health issues such as reducing tobacco use, preventing unintended pregnancies and protecting against domestic violence, as well as environmental issues, such preventing pollution and promoting alternative fuel vehicles.

We’re pleased to introduce you to Nedra and her thoughts about storytelling as a social motivator in marketing and communications.

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Your firm’s expertise is in helping people adopt change to improve their lifestyles. That’s sounds challenging, to say the least. How does storytelling help?
Getting people to change their behavior for the better is definitely a challenge! Storytelling is one approach of many — but a very powerful one! — that can make it more likely that someone will take action. Our brains are wired to respond to stories, and they can influence our thinking and behaviors in several different ways. When we read someone else’s story, we vicariously experience their challenges and learn by seeing the consequences of how they try to resolve the problems – both positive and negative. Research has found that our brains light up in the same spots as the actions taking place in the story! When the character runs, the brain’s “running center” is activated; when she is in danger, our own brain becomes more alert.

This means that characters modeling positive behaviors in the story and being rewarded for it, or overcoming common setbacks, can be very effective. Stories can also establish or reinforce social norms that support the behavior you are promoting; if the characters make healthy food choices or put sunscreen on over the course of the story, this can create the feeling that this is just what people do and so they should too. This is especially effective when the reader/viewer feels that the characters are very similar to themselves.

A recent randomized study of African American men with high blood pressure had one group view DVDs featuring videos of people like themselves telling their own stories of how they coped with having hypertension and keeping it under control. The other group watched DVDs with health segments from a TV news program. Those who had uncontrolled hypertension and watched the story-based DVDs achieved a drop in their blood pressure as significant as for those receiving medication in other trials. Now, that’s powerful!

Your firm uses something called “transmedia storytelling.” Can you explain what that is? It sounds a lot more than just a bedtime story.
Transmedia storytelling basically means telling different parts of a story across multiple platforms and media. It’s a way of making a story more immersive and interactive, turning the audience into participants rather than just passively reading or watching the narrative. Many movies and television shows (as well as marketers) are now using this approach to draw people into their story, on whatever platform the audience happens to be using. Shows like Heroes, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and movies like District 9, the upcoming Prometheus and others purposefully seed different story elements across media to draw people into the story in different places. So, a show might have some of the characters tweeting or posting to Facebook in real time, writing blog posts, uploading short videos to YouTube or sending text messages to participants; it might create a faux website for a key company in the story world, distribute business cards, put on a live event or offer an online game that gives you clues to get to the next part of the story.

I’m most interested in transmedia storytelling as a way of creating an immersive experience that makes positive health or social change more likely. To grab people’s attention, we need to have an engaging story with characters our audience can relate to. To spur action, we need to use proven behavior change models that provide a framework for the elements to include in the story arc. When we can make the different parts of the story appear where our audience spends its time, the characters can start to feel like trusted friends, and we can provide opportunities for interaction and participation. Social media is a great place to do this, with character tweets showing up in our audience’s Twitter stream, videos posted on their Facebook pages, and even things like a LinkedIn page that provides some backstory for a character or a Pinterest board that highlights the character’s interests and rounds them out to make them seem more real.

So I take it social media is vital for storytelling?
Social media has opened up many storytelling opportunities, particularly for non-profits, because of its ease of use and low cost. But it is by no means vital! Storytelling has been around since cavemen sat around the fire telling each other about the mammoth that got away. All you need are two humans, and the storytelling can happen. Face-to-face storytelling is certainly powerful, but so are books, videos, audio, comics and any of the other myriad ways people communicate with each other. When you combine different media, and tell stories from alternate points of view, it gets even more interesting.

Can you give me an example of a campaign you created that used storytelling?
I’ve been involved with UCLA and Health Net in developing a health-focused online social network for teens called T2X, for which we created an ongoing transmedia series called Club. We worked with a group of talented teen actors at a local performing arts high school to create a series of video episodes highlighting different topics related to health care literacy in a fun way. The story followed a fictional group of students who were in the school Health Club, and was shot in the mockumentary style of The Office. From those videos, we pulled out different story elements that augmented and provided more details related to the plot. For example, in the first video, one student is asked to search for some information online; we created a separate screencast with that student narrating as he “looked at” different websites and talking as he tried to figure out which were trustworthy. We created a humorous faux website for the doctor in one of the videos, complete with a working phone number and voice mail message. One of the students wrote and performed a song about whooping cough in a video, which tied into part of another episode. The characters all had accounts on the T2X social network, and posted updates that other characters and teen participants commented on.

T2X Website
(Credit: http://www.T2X.me)

Were you able to judge success?
The final evaluation of the T2X program, which will link use of the site and engagement with the transmedia series with actual healthcare utilization, is not yet complete. However, we do have some preliminary results based on some pre-post surveys linked to the Club content. We found that for the T2X members that engaged with the transmedia series, there was a 37% increase in health care literacy knowledge and 23% increase in intention to make a positive health change.

Do you have a favorite campaign? (It doesn’t have to be one of yours.)
One of my favorite examples of transmedia storytelling is the non-profit Invisible People (of which I am a board member). Mark Horvath, its founder, has single-handedly made a bigger difference in the issue of homelessness than many large organizations, simply by telling his own ongoing story and helping people who are homeless tell their stories through social media—in online videos, on Twitter and Facebook, via blogs, and on other sites. From a budget of essentially zero, Mark has inspired real change through the power of transmedia stories and attracted sponsors and extensive media coverage.

I also love what the Harry Potter Alliance is doing to extend the Harry Potter storyworld into the real world by harnessing the energy of fans to fight for social justice using analogies to events in the books. Its Deathly Hallows campaign took on seven real-world “horcruxes” to destroy, including child slavery, bullying, depression and more. Through its Imagine Better initiative, the HPA is now reaching out to other fandoms for social activism, starting with its current Hunger is Not a Game campaign.

What brought you into this line of work?
My background is in public health, and I’ve been working in the field of social marketing to create health and social change for about 20 years. Though communications are just one piece of a comprehensive social marketing approach, I’ve seen the power of the media to influence knowledge, attitudes and behaviors, and I believe stories are a powerful tool. As part of my work with the Entertainment Industries Council, we’re partnering with the entertainment and news media to influence attitudes toward people with mental illness, and the research we’re doing just reinforces how critical this piece of the puzzle is for creating lasting social change.

Would you know of anyone else who is using storytelling in a unique way?
There are many exciting projects going on right now that center on transmedia storytelling. Lina Srivastava, who coined the phrase “transmedia activism,” is doing some interesting work. The Tribeca Film Institute has been funding innovative transmedia documentaries and hosting related events. Many more fascinating people and projects are sharing what they’re doing in a Facebook group I founded called the Transmedia for Good Network, which everyone is invited to join (we currently have 440 members!).

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Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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The $4 Billion Mom Brigade

Ashley Kingsley is a social marketing whiz. It’s probably best to list the things she doesn’t do. Hmm. We’re stumped. She’s a social media marketing strategist, viral and grassroots marketing campaigner and renowned for her abilities when it comes to social networking and business development and start-ups. She’s also a writer, blogger, event planner and public speaker.

She co-founded Daily Deals for Moms in Denver, which grew into quite the enterprise and is now found in more than two dozen markets throughout the nation, including Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas and here in San Diego.

She’s a big believer in the power of storytelling and its use in social media marketing efforts. Her personal story is quite inspiring in itself. A mother of two children, she started Daily Deals for Denver Moms to help families on tight budgets get some much-needed spending relief and to support neighborhood-oriented small businesses at the same time.

The combination Ashley put together of storytelling, community-oriented economic development, and social media is why we asked the Denver resident to answer a few questions about her story and how she went from reaching one neighborhood to reaching a country of neighborhoods:

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Talk about being on the forefront of the social media world. You co-founded Daily Deals for Moms in Denver in 2010 and now it’s in 26 markets across the United States. How were able to see the potential in this?
I launched Daily Deals for Moms soon after Groupon and LivingSocial made an appearance. As a Mom, I knew, the deals that were being offered through the bigger channels were ones I couldn’t relate to. I was warming bottles and changing diapers, I didn’t need a ‘skydiving adventure.’ I needed deals on things I could relate to. Moms are the most powerful consumers in the world. I assumed there were a lot of Moms across the nation who were on the same page and wanted to save on things they needed.

Daily Deals for Moms Website
(Credit: Daily Deals for Moms)

You targeted moms. Why?
Moms are responsible for 4+ Billion in annual spending and make at least 85% of spending decisions for the household. It is the power of the purse!

Have you been able to incorporate storytelling techniques into your social media endeavors?
I always aim to create content into my social media strategies. People don’t want to just be “sold to.” They want to relate and typically buy into a way of life, or an idea based on content and presentation.

Was there a particular story that was compelling to your target market?
When I launched Daily Deals for Moms, I was determined to support small business all across the country. While building the company, day-by- day, I made certain that I didn’t run deals with big box stores and large conglomerates. Keeping capital local while sharing great deals with Moms and families across the country was my main mission. When this story was woven, and told, it was incredible how many people gravitated to it and its mission. We weren’t ‘just like everyone else’. We were doing good while offering something that people needed. This story was the fabric of our company. People love this story and we received a great deal of press because of it.

And what story did mom’s respond to the most/least?
We always made certain, that no matter what stories we were telling and sharing, that we used HUMOR. It was vital to the success of our company, our growth and to getting through to our audience.

Our audience did not respond to simple sales strategies and messages. If we didn’t engage without our Moms through conversation of some sort, sales didn’t convert.

Is it difficult to do?
I find it fairly easy to do, because I believe that transparency is of upmost importance. If I am honest and lay it on the line, there are no question marks. As a business and a person, I think it is imperative to ‘be who you say you are’ online and off.

In your opinion, what’s makes stories so powerful?
I believe the power of story unfolds in how relatable and accessible it is to the audience. A perfect stranger can touch the lives of hundreds and thousands, with relatable content.

Take the story of Zappos:
Zappos is an online shoe store. Carries all brands, sizes, colors. Simple. How can shoes be this interesting?

But the owner did something different…

Tony Hsieh, Founder of Zappos wanted not only to sell shoes, he was passionate about customer service, corporate culture and happiness. When Tony was asked, “what does happiness have to do with selling shoes?” He replied ,”At Zappos, our higher purpose is delivering happiness,” said Hsieh. Now this is a great story. And he is an amazing storyteller. “Whether it’s the happiness our customers receive when they get a new pair of shoes or the perfect piece of clothing, or the happiness they get when dealing with a friendly customer rep over the phone, or the happiness our employees feel about being a part of a culture that celebrates their individuality, these are all ways we bring happiness to people’s lives.”

Hsieh is a storyteller and he is also transparent which serves him very, very well. Hsieh has been able to turn shoe sales into a top rated experience and something really unique and special. He has done this through sharing stories, presenting, building his brand and staying true to his company culture, which celebrates the spreading of happiness.

He recently sold his company to Amazon.com for $928 Million.

You’ve left Daily Deals for Moms after giving it such a wonderful head start. So what’s your next project?
I would like to take everything I have learned in social media over the last eight years and bring it to companies who are eager to master the art of transparency and storytelling. There are a lot of companies out there who are not part of the conversation and really need to be. I would like to be that bridge.

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Thank you, Ashley. We look forward to hearing how your story continues.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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Short, Simple & Sweet: Creating the Magic of Storytelling

Remember the Volkswagen ad where the little boy playing Darth Vader tries to use “The Force” to make objects move? It was the most watched ad on YouTube in 2011, with 45 million hits. Check it out. It now has a whopping 52 million views.

Why?

Jean Gianfagna, president of Gianfagna Strategic Marketing based in Cleveland, believes its storytelling concept is the key.

OK. We buy into that completely. But just how is this storytelling done?

While we’ve been talking about the power of story on this blog and having experts chime in on its importance in marketing and for social well-being, we haven’t really touched on how to create this magic. What is the best strategy? What are the guidelines for good storytelling that your agency or organization should know so it can pull it off effectively?

Gianfagna, for one, believes there are seven characteristics of effective storytelling. From her blog, SmartMarketingStrategy, she writes:

1. It’s engaging: The viewer is immediately drawn into the scenario. Something interesting is happening and you want to know what it is.

2. It’s emotional: The best advertising stories make you feel something: Empathy, humor, joy, tension, excitement.

3. It’s memorable: You get it and can’t forget it.

4. It’s easy to retell: You can describe the basic scenario in one sentence.

5. It has a plot: There’s a beginning, middle, and end.

6. There’s an element of suspense: You have to stick with the ad to see how the story will turn out.

7. Most important, the product plays a pivotal role: The product is woven into the story so well that the story couldn’t be told with it.

It’s our opinion that those storytelling elements can work whether you’re selling a car or a critical transportation project that the car will very much need.

And there are other factors for successful storytelling, as well. Many experts, for instance, advise you to keep the story brief. Take the Volkswagen ad. It runs just over a minute.

Keep it simple. In the Volkswagen ad, there’s not a single word of dialogue. All the storytelling is done through body language. Still, its power is indisputable.

Darth Vader
(Credit: Volkswagen)

Jay Conger, professor of Leadership Studies at Claremont McKenna College, believes the above elements are important strategies in creating effective stories. He also believes you should keep the number of characters to just two or three and to tell the story in the present tense.

Here’s a link where he explains his strategies:

Daniel Brooks of Metia, a digital marketing agency, believes there are seven key rules to effective storytelling. On his blog, he writes:

1. Create a compelling plot: A story needs a beginning, middle, and an end. Whatever shape or form your customer marketing/advocacy campaign takes, it’s crucial that a) the components tell a whole story, and b), each component tells its own story.

Give your audience a reason to tune in by creating a compelling plot.

2. Choose your narrative wisely: Think of narrative as the way you communicate your brand’s personality. It refers to the style and tone you use to convey your plot. Style and tone need to be consistent so as not to confuse your audience.

Pay attention to narrative, it helps your brand stand out.

3. Animal, vegetable, or mineral? Throughout history, stories have been conveyed through a variety of formats, including symbols, pictures, spoken and/or written text. Know your audience and choose the story format that suits their time constraints and expectations.

Connect with your audience by choosing the right story format.

4. Make it relevant: You wouldn’t turn on MTV if you wanted to watch a classic opera. The same thing can be said about customer evidence. Why create a ten-minute video about making ice cream when you’re selling shoes?

Choose your customers’ story for its relevance to your target audience.

5. Keep it simple: Our attention spans are shrinking ─ even for things we enjoy reading or watching. Multiply that by 100 if you’re a time-starved executive who’s reading their 100th email of the day. Make it easy to understand your message and don’t try and include too many facts, figures, and ideas in one story.

Identify the best metrics and/or achievements and make them the focus.

6. Keep it real: A story that highlights real customer challenges and the steps taken to overcome them is a credible and effective piece of marketing collateral. You may want to talk about your expertise, insights and interests, but you need to listen to what your customers are talking about.

Take them on a journey that speaks to their goals.

7. Choose fact over fiction: We’re talking business here. You need hard facts supported by quotes from real people if you want to be believed.

Never resort to waffle or jargon when there’s nothing else to say.

We’d like to add two more pieces of advice. First, practice. Practice creating stories and practice telling them. And second, make sure the story you tell supports your overall message.

With a strong connection to the message and a little practice to make it perfect, you will help your organization live happily ever after.

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Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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Stories Are Around Us: Movies, Marketing and the Moon

The formula for a good story is pretty simple. You just need a hero, an adversary, some dramatic clashes, a climax and an ending that resolves those clashes. You can throw in a love interest if you like. And some cool cars, too. Like the Batmobile.

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. There’s Luke Skywalker, Robin Hood, Lara Croft, Columbo, Indiana Jones, the Green Hornet, Hermione Granger…

A hero can be a dog. (Lassie)

It can be a horse. (Seabiscuit)

It can be a robot. (WALL-E)

Heroes can even be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Of course, we normally associate stories with movies and TV and novels and comic books. But stories are all around us, influencing us daily, particularly through marketing efforts such as commercials.

These are stories that are sometimes no longer than a sentence, but still contain the elements of storytelling. They can compel you. They can make you take action. And, make you the hero. Appealing, yes?

So, yes, it is possible for just about any public agency or business to incorporate this strategy without writing the Great American Novel or coming up with the budget to shoot a major motion picture.

Think of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign. That’s a story. The hero? Why that’s you. You’re the one who’s wearing the Nike gear, trying to convince yourself to get off the couch and hit the gym. The bad guy? That’s inactivity or inertia. It gnaws at you. You say to yourself, “I just worked out three days ago.” Or “my knee kind of aches.” Or, “I could get some pizza instead.”

But you think, “Just Do It.” You see the athletes in the commercials running up stadium steps and hoisting weights. And by getting off the couch – it’s a battle no question (I’ve been there) – you slay the dragon of negativity and then hit the treadmill and work up a sweat. You just did it. You won. Cue the credits.

The Most Interesting Man in the World
(Credit: Dos Equis)

Another story? How about the Dos Equis beer campaign, “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” The hero is the pitchman, who, as we are told, is the “Most Interesting Man in the World.”

Snappy and funny lines back up this claim. Such as, “His personality is so magnetic, he is unable to carry credit cards.”

“He has won the lifetime achievement award…twice.”

“Sharks have a week dedicated to him.”

The bad guy? That would be conventionalism. This guy won’t stand for it. He’s represents the exact opposite. So when you think of Dos Equis, you think you are on the cutting edge. You are living. You have a connection with “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” Indeed, you want to be like him.

Storytelling through commercials can be quite elaborate. Take the recent ongoing campaign by Miracle Whip. One is a take-off on a witch hunt from the 17th century (it’s titled “Witch Hunt“). The settings, the costume designs, the lighting and the acting are all top-notch. They were even shot in Romania, not in a Hollywood back shop.

The heroes are the people who dare to eat this strange thing called Miracle Whip. They are being hounded by mobs who believe the Miracle Whip is an evil – or at least foul-tasting – concoction.

But they are asked if they ever even tasted it. (Come to think of it, I haven’t.)  In this case, ignorance loses. The people who use Miracle Whip win. The catch phrase: “Keep an open mouth.”

Miracle Whip Campaign
(Credit: Miracle Whip)

This storytelling structure works to market actions we can take for the public good, too. How about an oldie but goodie? This one from the Peace Corps enticed people to join by stressing how hard the work would be with the phrase, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.”

What a story!

It challenges you to be up for a much more than a trip to an interesting destination. You’re the hero, of course. But you’re no ordinary hero. You’re taking on a task that few others would dare. The job itself is the adversary. And this story is a classic one. It promises you adventure in faraway places with few creature comforts. And the reward? Well, you help people who truly need your help and perhaps even find love in the work that at first seemed like the adversary.

Telling a story captures the imagination and helps us understand and even experience feats that are usually beyond an easy understanding. For that reason, stories reel us in. True, landing on the moon was a technological feat. But, it was a larger story that all of us participated in. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” (The hero: Neil Armstrong, of course, but a step we heroically as a nation took together.)

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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