Advertising Age’s Garrick Schmitt recently wrote that “Data Visualization Is Reinventing Online Storytelling.” He celebrates the brilliant New York Times/IBM Visualization Lab and others for “turning bits and bytes of data... into stories for our digital age.” Admittedly, the Times’ work is groundbreaking, and I applaud Many Eyes and other “visual scientists” for their valuable work in helping us see complex data in clear, useful ways. But storytelling it is not.
Several weeks ago Bloomberg BusinessWeek published an article about Steve Jobs entitled, The Last Pitchman. It documented Jobs’ seemingly inexplicable ability to sell practically anything, as evidenced by his glorious pitch for the iPhone 4, a “new” product which the news media had already gotten hold of and detailed weeks before. I tore the pages out of the magazine as is my habit with content which proffer good fodder for blogposts. Although the article was fascinating, I struggled with how to make sense of it — until last Sunday when I read a New York Times interview with Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO of Box.net. Levie used to do magic shows as a teen, and he says some of his most important leadership lessons come from the hobby: “…it’s all about getting in front of people and telling a story, something that people buy into that is hopefully entertaining. It’s all about capturing people’s imaginations and getting them excited about what’s possible.” I realized that’s exactly what makes Jobs such an effective pitchman – magic. Let me break this down a little.
Finally, marketers are acknowledging the necessity of listening to consumers - aka "people" - and brands are adjusting to the social networked environment by opening conversations. Market researchers cannot ignore these developments since they dictate the necessity of understanding peoples' identities, not only their interests. We Are People, Not Data Points - See Us Live
In the old days, most of the meanings of our objects came prefab. This is what brands did for us. Brands, and the advertisers, planners, researchers and marketers who made them. Inevitably we would add meanings to our possessions. We might finesse the ones we found there. But mostly, anyone with the same objects had the same meanings. Thus did our material culture make our culture material.
"We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to make sense of the world," writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. "Individual responsibility is contained in the act of selecting and constantly revising the master narrative we tell about ourselves." Brooks' explanation about choice of narrative can apply to leaders seeking ways to navigate our recession. The relentless tide of bad news may tempt those in charge to adopt a pessimistic view point, but leaders owe it to their followers to spread optimism. Without excluding reality, leaders need to inspire not simply hope, but also resilience. Storytelling can help in this effort. Here are some suggestions for crafting your own story to make sense of adversity.
Narratives are a staple of every culture the world over. They are disappearing in an online blizzard of tiny bytes of information.
As my original career was in biology, when I started working with stories I naturally wanted to consider the natural history of stories, including their life cycles. Now this is a much more difficult thing with stories than with tadpoles or mushrooms, because stories mingle and morph in ways that creatures can't. But here is try at it, based on my experiences and what I've read. I've been pondering this cycle for a long time and playing with it in mind, and this is what I've got to lately. Of course this cycle will be nothing new to anyone who thinks about stories, and it's obviously a greatly simplified metaphor, and I'm merrily making up terms as I go. But this sort of thing can provide a scaffold for discussions about helping people tell and share stories to attain goals.
If a picture paints a thousand words, then how much is a tweet worth? Ten words, a dozen? When embracing Twitter, have you struggled to write something profound or worthwhile within the confines of 140 characters? I have. Don't get me wrong, "tweet speak" has its place in our digital world, but with every process that strips away the need to construct coherent and meaningful prose, not just blurts with links, we will, in turn, think less about what and how we write. It's already happening. When talking about the art of communicating and storytelling, whether it's oral, aural, visual or in words (stay with me here, I am trying to correlate this with PR), the creative process is often lost during the template-driven process of writing a press release.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby that personality is forged by an "unbroken string of successful small gestures." And as with people, so with brands. Brand personality takes root in the soil of its own heritage and history. Some brands have to make up a past. Others have ancestry galore to utilize if the brand's stewards can strike the right tone without relying too much on nostalgia. I call this brand mythos -- the archetypal true back-story, the legend of itself told to itself and its fans.
Last week, I had the pleasure of spending a few days of downtime in Vermont (with my family), and one of the must-sees in that state is, by all accounts, the Ben & Jerry ice cream headquarters. So we went. And it was a great display of powerful branding in action. Ben & Jerry's grew from a quirky little local ice cream shop to a global brand with a dedicated following, all because a couple of guys (yes, Ben and Jerry) decided to start a business based on a $5 correspondence course on making ice cream. The tour was lighthearted and informative, and very much in line with the fun approach Ben & Jerry's takes to branding.
Visual design, in Stocks’ mind, is not a passive endeavor but a form of communication—design is part of the message, not a shiny coat over the message. If the trends in design currently tilt toward simplicity and transparency, Stocks presents a strong counterargument for using aesthetics to tell the story in a different light. The grungy, painterly aesthetic and complex visual structure of his blog—in which every visual element leads to another—demonstrate that his theories can be used to make a website a work of narrative art.
It’s not your numbers that make you interesting. It’s not your title, your logo, your tagline, your brand promise. It’s not the colors you agonized over for your website. It’s not about what you’ve accomplished, because to me, that’s already in the past. I want to follow your story. I want to follow your tomorrow, your hope for what’s next and your aspirations for how the world around you - however small - is going to be better for your presence. That can be making a better ballpoint pen, or building the nanostructures that will cure cancer. But tell me something interesting.
Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of Story. As you may have heard, it's kaput—or, at the very least, terminally ill, wracked by videogames, wikis, recaps, talkbacks, YouTube, ADD, and the rise of a multiplatform, multipolar, mashup-media culture.
Marketing a product is hard. If you’re the chief storyteller of Skype right now, what are you going to say about the product that will encourage more usage, more uptake, more awareness? The product is fairly solid, has a known set of features, and is one of a few “name brand” products in the Voice over IP space. So what can you say about it?