The Back Story on Storytelling

Just in case you have been thrown into the deep end of the storytelling pool without your floaties, here’s some quick background (which has been grossly condensed, generalized, and simplified in the service of brevity). “The United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.” --Edward Bernays, “The Engineering of Consent,” 1947

Back in ye olden days, humans entertained, taught, and maintained cultural norms through stories and oral histories. The audience and the storytellers were interchangeable (the audience of one story was the teller of the next) and the telling of stories was a communal and interactive activity.

While that process was never eradicated, it was greatly reduced by the onset of mass media—first through the printing press, then through radio and television. The 20th Century saw a dramatic rise in the ability of well-positioned individuals, corporations, and governments to talk to (or talk at) the public at large in a vector-based manner. Think of newspaper, radio, and TV ads—there was no form of audience interaction, yet they were able to ubiquitously permeate households during this time. For instance, if you bought commercial time during The Wonderful World of Disney (Sunday nights at 7:30!), a good portion of the American public would see your message.

The market for this kind of unidirectional messaging was kept restricted by the relative scarcity of opportunities and tremendous associated costs. Messaging was dominated by organizations with deep pockets.

"And the Internet has smashed the room to smithereens." DMcD

This communications structure was accompanied by the rise of the public relations, publishing, marketing, and advertising industries. You could view these professionals as being like the priesthood—a group of people with specialized skills and training that served as a liaison between the mass public and a small, powerful group.

The development of the personal computer and the Internet exponentially increased the number and variety of communications outlets, as well as functionally eliminating the hard costs of creating and sharing information. This technological quake resulted in an explosion of content production, with the result that the competition for “mind share” became fiercely competitive. And as social media platforms proliferated, the audience had an increasingly central role in content production. It is no longer enough to provide good content; you have to provide content that makes the audience want to contribute, become emotionally vested, and integrated into the stories.

All of this created a drive to develop and package information, messages, and promotion in the most emotionally compelling way. Cynical information consumers no longer buy into the idea that buying a product will make them like the celebrity touting it; and in a globalized economy, consumers of all kinds have many options.

As a result, regular-old people and organizations have been driven to create brands that are replete with symbols, slogans, and values. What once was the province of large corporations is now the playground of anyone with a computer and wifi access.

In this sphere, an ever-widening range of people, organizations, and industries have adopted the storytelling strategy. In short, your competition is sharpening their storytelling skills. You should, too.