Storytelling and Narrative Persuasion



“I guess traditional advertising would be, ‘We’re Gatorade, we have more oranges, go buy Gatorade.’”

So said Enyi Nwosu, the director of M&C Saatchi’s central strategy unit, at Advertising Week Europe. The panelists talked about turning stories into sales.

M&C Saatchi emphasizes “brutal simplicity of thought.” More about that later.

Tom Bradby, political editor at ITV News and host of The Agenda, moderated the conversation. I think it’s apt that Bradby is a news editor because news stories, too, often lead with anecdotes. (The exception is hard news.) Anecdotes naturally invite people into a broader story.

One reason is that we empathize with the characters.

Maybe we see a character and think, “I totally know that guy!” Or maybe we see a bit of ourselves, a bit of who we’d like to be. Even when watching a villainous character like Goldfinger, it requires suspending our own identity and assuming the identity of Goldfinger, if only to understand what is being said.

It’s important to recognize the sheer power of connecting with a character. In advertising, I am reminded of the good citizen who helps a blind person collect money, by turning the cardboard sign around and writing a more compelling message.

Brutal simplicity of thought, right there. (Due credit to agency Purplefeather.)

A Common Ground

There is a common ground among advertisers, journalists, novelists, and even politicians.

Suppose a story starts like this:

Chazz Michael Michaels shifts, childlike, in his seat and bites his lip. The sharp slice of skates carves and weaves along the ice, echoing inside the rink. It has been years since Michaels has skated. Not so much because he was banned from the Olympics, he says, but because he is approaching middle age. “Maybe I should drink more Gatorade,” he wonders aloud.

With apologies to the Blades of Glory screenplay writers, the above is more in keeping with telling a story.

I doubt logic has much to do with narrative advertising. And why should it?

You can logic someone to death about horsepower or interest rates, but that’s not how to persuade most people.

More to the point, turning stories into sales means distilling an offering into a story – often a micro-movie – and then relating it in a way that feels approachable, emotional, and compelling.

Telling stories can work just as well with advertising as it can for movies, books, and tales told around the campfire.

Indeed, it can work to great effect in politics (as Mr Bradby might confirm).

With every U.S. political election cycle, Ivy-League millionaires compete to tell the story I call “Most Humble Upbringing Ever.”

They do so as a means of persuasion.

To relate with us. To help us empathize, despite the chasm of social class.

Following the hook, it’s to engage us – to get us all revved up and participating.

Sound familiar?

“Great storytelling has to start from character. The single most important thing in terms of the public engagement of a story is engagement with a character,” said panelist Kieran Roberts, creative director at ITV Studios and executive producer of the television drama “Coronation Street.”

“It’s rare that people will remember in any detail the plots, but they will remember the characters and relationships.”

(Even a trial lawyer will make a narrative case to a jury, presenting a client like a character in a story, again appealing to empathy and emotion more than logic.)

Along those lines, brands that face suit have been advised in print by the U.S. Justice Antonin Scalia to lean on the equity of the story behind their brand. His example: Compare “American Airlines” with “American” and with “AA.”

Which of those three best invokes a positive universal narrative, a.k.a., a shared myth?

The Power Of The Myth

Panelist and screenwriter Kate Brooke pointed to myth as the root of stories. “All stories are based on myth, if you go back far enough,” she said. But she also advocated the inclusion of truth or a general basis in what we understand to be the truth.

There we find a gray area between myth and objective truth.

From universally shared myth, we incorporate canonical archetypes into our understanding of the world. That makes its way into pop culture, as well.

These are a few examples, found in stories I value:

Justice prevails. (Die Hard)

Power is not the answer. (Wall Street)

Family loyalty is not the same as duty. (Star Wars)

Love conquers all. (Cloud Atlas)

Everyone has their version of events. (Rashomon)

The military can beat UFOs and stuff. (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2008 edition)

Europe is all romance, all the time. (Vicky Christina Barcelona)

The mind is a beast. (Persona)

Stories As A Human Need

Nwosu had led the panel discussion by talking about his relationship with his children.

“I’ve got an 8 and a 6 year old, so I’d say, we are bang into fairy tales.” (Which rely on myth.)

That’s a personal note, but are stories really a human need, even in advertising?

“I think on a very human level, people want to feel a sense of belonging…stories bring people in. They can be shared, they can be added to,” he continued (and I agree).

“From an advertising perspective, it’s just interesting listening to you (writers talking about your process), starting on projects not knowing where they’re going. We often have about 30 seconds… we immediately have to hook people with stories.”

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