by Dan Woychick
From the earliest days of civilization, human beings have told stories to explain the unexplainable. The desire to make complex things simpler and more understandable has produced an abundance of myths, aphorisms, and rules of thumb that remain cultural touchstones to this day. For example:
- Bats are blind.
- Don’t go in the pool after you eat.
- You need a college degree to get a good job.
The enduring appeal of tales like these owes as much to the familiar comfort they bring as to any kernels of truth they may contain.
Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Stories explain how things work, how we make and justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we create our identities, and how we understand our place in the world. – Dr. Pamela Rutledge
With WiFi and mobile networks reaching ever more broadly, the ability to share knowledge and shape opinions has never been easier. With such accessible broadcast platforms, I’ve noticed a growing number of self-appointed “thought leaders” make it a habit to point out – often quite eloquently and convincingly – the many ways that prevailing wisdom is misguided.
However, unlike the curious band of misfits on the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters – an entertaining mash-up of pop culture and science experiments – many writers are long on sweeping opinions and woefully short when it comes to offering alternatives to the myths they’re busting.
It’s one thing to observe and document a problem and quite another to create a new solution. Or, as I once heard a director observe – critics are to motion pictures as ornithologists are to birds.
Learning to fly
Having the ability to discern good from bad – or true from false – is only the beginning when there is the need to replace a familiar story with something better. Moving people and organizations to action – achieving behavior change and positive outcomes – requires more than exposing dusty myths to the light of day.
Humans simply aren’t moved to action by ‘data dumps,’ dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion. The best way to emotionally connect other people to our agenda begins with “Once upon a time…” – Peter Guber
People need stories. To transcend the current state of things, we need to be myth builders, not myth busters.
If we treat marketing and communications as a concerted effort to engage people around a compelling narrative – if, like TED.com, we really have “ideas worth spreading” – we may need to rethink how and with whom we work. Some key threads to consider:
- Stay curious. The most certain path to understanding and reaching an audience is to vigilantly resist thinking you know more about them than you really do. Just remember that the child who repeatedly asks “Why?” – tiresome though it may be – is learning a lot more than you are. Make no assumptions and ask lots of questions.
- Collaborate. As a way to multiply our curiosity and skills, we need to get used to the idea of expanding our personal networks. The problems that desperately need solutions require stories and audiences on a far greater scale. We must combine forces, bringing new voices and ideas to the table, to increase our effectiveness.
- Make small bets. Start thinking of your office as a laboratory where experiments are ongoing. Reaching the big milestone is a misguided mindset. Use prototypes or pilot projects to fail early, fail fast, and learn faster.
- Take the long view. Next year matters more than next week. This is not a recipe for procrastinating, but an acknowledgment that coordinating complex systems is an effort that bears fruit over time. The best way to rally people to your cause – to share stories on an epic scale – is to keep the big picture clearly in sight.
Revealing the truth is undeniably a form of storytelling. We all benefit by living with our eyes wide open. But if we want people to listen to our stories, to care, and to act, we can’t simply point out that the emperor has no clothes, we must also provide a new wardrobe. Because, as Ira Glass noted, great stories happen to those who can tell them.