All Meaningful Communication is a Form of Storytelling

Solitary Man

Narration is “a conceptional framework for understanding human decision, discourse and action”-(Walter Fisher, 1989)

The Setup

My friend of 10 years Richard, a 45 year-old hard-working, loving father and auto mechanic from Charlestown strode across the street to his car, leaving early for a 8:00am meeting with his lawyer. This was to be their first meeting.

Once at the office Richard and his lawyer, a 27 year-old just out of law school, began to hash out an intricate legal strategy, one with the ultimate goal of receiving full custody of Richard’s two children from his alcoholic-gambling ex-wife Linda. Linda hasn’t worked in years and leaves the children, aged 10 and 12, home alone frequently while going to Foxwoods with her boyfriends to gamble away her child support check. Richard loves his children dearly and works 60 hours a week at the garage just to make ends meet and to provide for them. He does this even though he knows the money goes to liquor stores and into the casino safe instead of into his two kids’ bellies.

The Conflict

So, Richard and his lawyer meet every Tuesday at 8:00am for the next 6 months. During this time Richard gets up at 6:00am and goes to work at the garage for a hour or so before heading to his lawyer’s office in Jamaica Plains to plan out next steps. Linda stays in bed until noon, letting her kids get themselves ready for school and consequently, wait for the bus alone on the corner. While they get on the bus in the rain Linda is puffing on her third cigarette of the morning.

Linda also has a lawyer (subsidized by Richard’s child-support check) who is the typical pony-tailed, expensive-suited litigator with an office on State Street, who pulls out all the stops and plays nasty just to win. He has 25 years experience though with numerous investigators working for him. And he wins his cases.

The conflict between Richard and Linda continues, both in court and when Richard goes to pick the kids up every other weekend.

The Resolution

At the end of the 6 months, and after much hard work and scrapping together (through borrowing and pleading for overtime) money to pay his less experienced, but ethically stout lawyer, Richard wins full custody of his kids. The more experienced lawyer is beaten down and Linda is remiss for the loss of the child support check. The children love their father and are happy to finally be able to live with him full-time.

Installing new engine mounts in the Chev.

A Credible Story?

You know this little account that I just relayed to you? Well it’s pure fiction. Sorry! I have no friend named Richard who has just won a hard-fought battle for his kids. I told you this story to illustrate the power of Walter Fisher’s Narrative paradigm theory and to hopefully show you why storytelling is effective in marketing communications.  To quickly summarize, Fisher believed that

all meaningful communication is a form of storytelling or giving a reporting of events and so human beings experience and comprehend life as a series of ongoing narratives each with their own conflicts, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends.

And the way in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, “has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument.” And to believe in other people’s “stories” the same must hold true. Where credibility = a coherent narrative structure (e.g. the story tells us that Richard loves his children, and then depicts him fighting for them at great personal sacrifice), and also the story has to resonate with the listeners’ values, beliefs and experiences (e.g. ethics and morality will win over immorality and playing nasty).

Instead of mainly basing our decisions on logical, rational arguments (e.g. because Linda’s lawyer is more experienced than Richard’s, Linda will surely win the custody battle), Fisher posited that we humans make decisions based on history, culture and perceptions about the status and character of the other people involved in the narrative.

So, while reading the account above, thinking about your experiences and picturing hard-working Richard and lazy Linda with her immoral lawyer, did you happen to forsee the ending? You probably did. You’re smart like that. Plus storytelling is engrained in your DNA.

What The Heck Does This Have To Do With Marketing Communications?

Well I’ll tell you. “Audiences are interested in the real stories, experiences, dilemmas and issues confronting us in 2011. It has to feel relevant to them,” says Charlotte Moore, the commissioning editor for documentaries at the BBC. Telling true stories well, as alluded to by Moore and discussed in the book Content Rules, powerfully connects a brand to its customers/community/prospects –  in a meaningful way. And telling true brand stories well entails everything I mentioned above – including conflict, resolution and of course the hero who comes to the rescue and solves the problem(s).

For example, narrative coherence would begin with a city-based university’s message to prospective applicants and their parents that they are there to solve all concerns students and their folks may have related to moving in and living on a “campus” in the city, and that ultimately the university cares about the student. Then they would cement the narrative coherence by offering a social channel like Twitter in which to provide insights and relevant info to students/their families and provide video/pictures that vividly illustrates what the dorms look like and where incoming freshman will indeed live.

Telling true stories well also entails communicating a brand story that resonates, for example, with the students and their parent’s values and experiences. Of course to make this all jive marketers and communicators have to first hear (listening as action) the people they are attempting to connect with and then weave these insights into their communication(s) and story.

Mechanic photo credit: Edward Wingate

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Channeling Inspiration From Small Moments in the Past


As people traverse the uncertain times in their lives (e.g. graduating from school & hunting for new opportunities), and understandably get knocked back as they go, inspiration is certainly important for many reasons. No doubt you have heard the old adage, ‘Don’t live in the past,’ but I would offer that visiting the past now and again can be a great inspiration and a motivator.

An Image in Time

Take the picture above for example. It was taken this past December while I was still in school and working in a position that I loved – Social Media Manager in my university’s Office of University Communications. I was hired as a full-time student and after graduating the position was to be filled by a grad fellow. Not important to my point though. This was a time in my life that was imbued with excitement, daily challenges and achievement and leaving work one day on my way to class I quickly, and without much thought, snapped this picture. This image that captures a time in one person’s life can be looked at as just a small moment, a pebble really in a long and tortuous driveway, but I choose to channel it for inspiration and drive.

Job Search Inspiration

I look at this image on my desktop everyday before writing the many cover letters and networking on LinkedIn that goes with a 21st century job search, and I remember the trials and challenges that go with attending graduate school, working and raising a little boy. But most importantly, it also reminds me that I can and have rocked these myriad milestones. This small and quite moment serves a larger purpose.

So, do you have any small moments in your past that you use for inspiration today?  I would love to hear about them!

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