The Power of Storytelling

Love this author and her latest post from her blog SaaniaSparkle. Find this and more wisdom at her site https://saania2806.wordpress.com

The Power of Storytelling

There is an ancient parable very close to my heart, which goes as follows: a Jewish man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers, leaving him half dead. A priest and a Levite saw him yet passed by. But a Samaritan came to where the man was and bandaged his wounds. Then, put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn, and cared for him until he healed. Today, this beautiful story is the etymology of the phrase “good Samaritan”, a person who is a “neighbor” not just to people of their own group (at the time, there was intense hostility between Samaritans and Jews). We understand it, remember it, and retell it later because the idea of love, compassion, and a man crossing a tremendous social gulf to help a wounded man sticks with us. The story may even change our behavior in some way as we remember to help others in times of distress. Legendary stories like these encapsulate: stories hold a miraculous power.

Made to Stick is a book I read written by two brothers, Chip Heath, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University and Dan Heath, a senior member for Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University. The brothers explain, “stories are told and retold because they contain wisdom. A story’s power is that it provides simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act).” Being a health and fitness freak, the key example highlighted in the book sticks with me: the Jared Campaign for Subway. In the late 1990’s, Subway launched a campaign to tout the healthiness of a new line of sandwiches. This campaign was based on the statistics: seven subs under six grams of fat. Sounds pretty good yeah? But this 7 under 6 idea didn’t stick quite like Subway’s next campaign which focused on the remarkable story of Jared. Jared, a college student, was seriously overweight, ballooning up to 425 pounds. But by spring, Jared decided to slim down. He had his first Turkey sub. He eventually developed his own all-Subway diet: a foot long veggie sub for lunch and a six-inch turkey sub for dinner. After 3 months of this diet, he dropped almost 100 pounds. Coad and Barry, president of the advertising agency Hal Riney, found out about this and thought, “we’ve got a great story on our hands”. They decided to run an advertisement for regional Subway franchisees. The idea blew the internet. Unlike the 7 under 6 idea which only held logos, the tale of Jared holds a simulation value as well as pathos, the emotional resonance which provides inspiration. Perhaps we are not all looking to lose weight. But ‘fighting big odds and prevailing through perseverance’, now that sounds inspirational to any ear. And inspiration drives action.

That being said, not all stories stick. Chip and Dan hence came up with 3 types of plots if our goal is to energize and inspire others through our stories. First, the challenge plot. We all recognize this one, where a protagonist overcomes a formidable challenge yet succeeds in the end, attracting triumph and glory. As someone who is obsessed with Disney princesses, my personal favorite story, much similar to the Jared story, is the one about Princess Mulan. Mulan is a loving and determined daughter. Desperate to prevent her ailing father from being drafted by the army, she disguises herself as a man and enlists in his place. In the army, she must try to hide her true identity while battling the enemies. With determination and bravery, Mulan ends up saving both her father and her country. Seems like the quintessential challenge plot, right?

Second, the connection plot. The story of the good Samaritan fits well into this one. We live in a world where we are constantly surrounded by people. Connection plots are all about the relationships we form with these people. In the business world, connection plots create an emotional connection between a company, its products and its customers. Always is a company that produces period products for women. As a girl, watching the advert from Always titled ‘Like a girl’ made me feel proud being one. It showed a group of teens acting out certain actions such as “Can you throw like a girl?” or “Can you fight like a girl?”. Girls were illustrated as soft, wimpy, and sloppy. The ad then contrasted this by asking the same questions to little girls. These girls this time ran, threw, and fought normally. “When did doing something “like a girl” become an insult?” was the food for thought. All over the nation, this advert empowered women. Our power was unleashed!

Third, the creativity plot. As a frequent flyer, I have often observed how on-flight safety instructions are given little attention by most passengers. One of my favorite examples showcasing the creativity plot is hence the one about a flight attendant, Karen Wood. Karen wanted to make people care about the safety instructions on flight. “And as the song goes, there may be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there are only six ways to leave this aircraft:…”, she spoke. It didn’t take long for passengers to tune into her comic spiel. We can’t demand attention, we must attract it. Creativity plots help us achieve this as we do something different, harness creativity, and experiment with new approaches (within certain regulations, of course).

The power of storytelling fascinates me. Thousands of years ago, myths and legends were told through oral cultures. These then developed profound ways of communicating so that cultures were able to transmit themselves through generations. Think also about the way we get lost in fictitious worlds from the books we’re reading or the way we identify with different protagonists from the movies we’re watching. I often marvel over how the horror movies I watch haunt me in my sleep, or how tales of adventure like Princess Moana’s venture into the sea drive me to go set out on my own, how romance novels set expectations in love I’d possibly carry with me throughout my life, and even how comedic pieces make me fondly quote cheesy lines in my day to day life. In the marketing world, too, it is through storytelling that the audience is able to connect, engage, empathize, and most importantly, remember messages. As Steve Jobs exceptionally summarizes, “the most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.”

– SaaniaSparkle 🧚‍♀️

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