There’s Never “Too Much Story”

So I’m watching Mad Men for the second time around. The copy writing team is pitching an ad idea to Don Draper, the creative director. The product was a hair spray and the writer elaborated a “double date” story around two couples in a car. One woman had used the hair spray, the other hadn’t. The message of the story — too arrive in style, a lady should use the hair spray. Don liked the concept but he said something I’ve never heard before, he said, “too much story.” While the fictional character of Don Draper is known to be the ultimate ad man maven, I have to disagree. There is never too much story. Stories are how we learn, remember, communicate. Stories infuse emotion into sometimes dry material making the content memorable. See my 8 Point Story Primer below to build your capacity to use story. It’s something of a corporate cultural meme these days to invoke story. It’s being used to tell a brand’s story, to convey particular messages to consumers, in design, market research, and it’s being used to pitch new concepts. It’s even being used to explain innovation frameworks — like my own business novel about creative problem solving, Jack’s Notebook. This is not a fad, use of story is hardly ever wrong — and nearly always helpful. The power of story is nothing new of course. The bible does a pretty good job of using story to convey a message right? Minstrels, Irish story tellers (shanachie) and native American “tribe scribes” evidence a long-standing oral tradition. Story is hard-wired into the human brain. Eli Goldratt kicked off a rash of business stories in book form with his seminal book The Goal. Writers like Patrick Lencioni and Steve Farber, among many, picked up the baton and ran with it. Storytelling as an art form has gotten new legs in the last few years, as witnessed by the success of The Moth recordings. A story well told is a life long mind sticker. Who doesn’t remember Curious George? What might be new is the use of story to understand “what’s going on” in a business context. My KILN business partner Kate Hammer, Phd. has created a wonderful new tool for using story called StoryFORMS. It breaks down stories into components and gives users a thinking (and visual) tool to help them either sort out a story, or, form a new one. I think folks need story tools because while story is deeply embedded in human DNA, unless you’re an English major, nobody teaches you the elements of story. Consultants like Michael Margolis are making careers out of this kind of education, and more power to them. The trend of using improvisation in business is largely about access to making up stories. Don’t be intimidated by story. Here’s the super-simple 8 Point Primer for making use of story in your context:

  1. Ask yourself what’s the story being told?
  2. What’s the beginning, middle, end?
  3. Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? Who’s the narrator?
  4. What is the climax or payoff, and where is it in the arc of the story?
  5. What the emotional string  being pulled?
  6. What is the story being heard? If you don’t know — ask.
  7. What’s the story you want to communicate? How can you revise your story to boost it’s memorability and clarity?
  8. Tell the story again and again — you’ll learn how it’s working as you  see and feel the response.

Change the story as required –and keep telling it. There is no such thing as too much story. Don Draper, “too much story” means you’re jaded and faded — go get your suit pressed.

image credit: amctv.com

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If Steve Jobs Worked for You, you'd probably fire himGregg Fraley is a creativity and innovation consultant. He currently works with Fortune 500 companies and does keynotes, workshops, training and consulting. The author of Jack’s Notebook, a business parable about creative problem solving, he is also a certified administrator of the Kirton Adaptor Innovator inventory which measures creative style.

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