I have been doing a lot of work lately in the area of networking, and one of my heroes is Keith Ferrazzi, author of "Never Eat Alone." In his blog, Keith wrote recently about the power of storytelling in marketing. He's on to something.
Stories organize reality. In the real world, events don't occur in a structured, meaningful way -- they just occur. Stories are how we make sense of them. They mean arranging events in a narrative, with a conclusion. Basically, they're a way of bringing order to chaos.
One of my favorite examples is the final scene from the movie The Graduate. Remember? Benjamin storms the church where Elaine is about the marry the other guy, and he and Elaine flee together -- she's in a wedding dress. They run down some street in Los Angeles, and make their getaway by climbing onto a bus. The final shot of the film is the two of them sitting in the back of the bus as it heads down the street.
But what makes the scene amazing is the look they exchange at the end. After a scene like this, had they gazed into each others' eyes, and passionately kissed, we would all have known this was a Happily Ever After story, and all the preceding events would have been seen that way.
Instead, they give one another this look of utter ambivalence. Dustin Hoffman, in particular, makes it clear that he doesn't really know what to do next, what he's done, what's going to happen. He looks a little baffled. This completely changes how we perceive all the events that preceded that look, and the whole meaning of the story.
People have been telling each other stories since we climbed down out of the trees. Stories, really, are what marketing is all about. The best marketers know this instinctively. Apple spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on marketing. They employ over 17,000 people. Steve Jobs is worth around $5 billion. Yet, their stories are all about quirkiness, individuality, creativity. And their 1984 commercial may be the most powerful, famous little story ever told.
Understand stories, and you'll understand marketing.
P.S. For an in-depth at how this all works within organizations, take a look at John Seely Brown's book Storytelling in Organizations.