During the Advertising Week Europe Festival at the end of March in London, the APA hosted a successful session titled The Renaissance of Storytelling. The session was presented by Steve Davies and the speakers were Nikolaj Scherfig, writer of the Scandinavian TV drama The Bridge, Peter Souter, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of TBWA and writer of Married, Single, Other for the BBC and Andy Orrick, Chief of Stuff at Rattling Stick. Andy wrote and presented the following talk, which we have published in full for you here.
For the last month or so, I've been reading the Greek Myths to my kids and they’ve been loving them. One day, a couple of weeks back however, I tried to read the story of The Wooden Horse with a stinking cold and it fell massively flat. There was no rhythm, the characters limped off the page, and it was like wading through molasses on a grey Sunday in January.
Even though the kids had since moved on to some other tale, I felt a sense of duty to give The Wooden Horse another go. I hadn't made them care about it at all. For 4,000-years the story has passed from generation to generation, then it reaches me and I royally bugger it up. So I summoned my best Dame Judy and read it again - this time I made it sing like GaGa at the Oscars.
When I got home from work the next day I found Darth Vader and Elsa from Frozen, wedging Beanie-Boos into a shoebox. They were waging a stealth war on an army of Barbie’s in the kitchen. The story had hit home. My work was done. The Ancient Greeks could stop spinning in their graves.
The reason I wanted to tell you this ridiculously middle-class tale is because it made me think that we owe it to story to tell it well. Story has a power. But it takes real skill to awaken that power and use it effectively. So on that note, I thought I would just talk around three key points:
1. Story is vital to us
2. We gravitate to the best storytellers
3. The best storytellers respect their audience
1. Story is vital to us
To explain why story is vital to us, it’s first good to remind ourselves just how it works.
So, I want you to imagine a character called Andy. He's a nice, marginally overweight dad on stage at AdWeek delivering a speech. And let's imagine this speech means an awful lot to Andy, maybe he feels he’s failed in some way? It's important he overcomes his fear and succeeds to prove his worth to both himself and his family. He’s plucked up the courage to give it a go and he’s brought Darth and Elsa along for moral support.
So the first thing the writer has to do is to make you feel empathy for Andy, and he’ll do this by making something horrible happen to him that he doesn’t deserve. So let's make Andy get terrible stage fright mid-flow - he’s totally paralyzed - and because you like him, you really feel for him now.
It’s crucial that the writer fosters this emotional connection between you and Andy. It means that from here on in, you will be feeling what Andy feels and therefore the writer has gained some control over you. Andy is basically the writer’s Voodoo doll, so when the writer messes with Andy’s feelings, he’s actually messing with yours.
So, back to the story - just when Andy doesn’t think it can get much worse, he feels a draft around his crotch. His fly is gaping open. He goes to zip it up, but in the process drops his speech. As he bends down to gather up the pages, he hears a huge rip. His trousers have split right up the backside. Andy stands quickly. He edges backwards and knocks the lectern over. And so on, and so on. The writer just piles anxiety on top of anxiety. And as we’re all story masochists, on the one hand you’ll be willing it to end, but on the other you’ll be compelled to watch.
Just when the writer’s got you feeling all is lost, and you’re in the depths of Andy’s despair, Andy looks out into the audience to see the faces of Darth and Elsa smiling back at him. They give him a little thumbs-up, willing him on. They love him whatever he does, he’s their dad. So Andy finds his courage and soldiers forth. He finishes his speech and it ends to rapturous applause and it’s this applause that releases Andy from his fear - and also you from yours. It’s a big fat cathartic air punch. Happy chemicals whiz through your body. The tension sails off into the sunset. Praise the Lord!
So how has the story worked?
Well, it should’ve taught you something about the human condition. It feels bad making a tit of yourself, but it’s how you deal with it that counts. It should’ve taught you something about the world around you. Martin Luther King must’ve had balls of steel to deliver the speeches he did. And finally, the story should’ve persuaded you of something. Making a speech at AdWeek leads to humiliation. You do not like to feel humiliation. You will never make a speech at AdWeek.
So stories do many things for us, but most important of all, they allow us to test and rehearse our emotions.
2. We gravitate to the best storytellers
It’s just a basic fact of life. Think about how you choose your mates, your partner, what you listen to, what you watch, and what you read. We all have different ideas of what makes a great storyteller, but none of us tolerate average for long.
We're all Paul Thomas Anderson in our own imaginations, very few of us are in reality. If we were all given a canvas and paints, I wonder how many Caravaggio’s we’d find? Likewise pens and paper, I wonder how many Harper Lees?
Technology offers democracy, which is great. Everyone can create, produce and distribute stuff themselves, but we still live in a meritocracy too. If a storyteller can’t make us feel, at best we’ll switch off grumpy that our time’s been wasted; at worst we won’t even notice them at all.
I learnt the other day that our attention span is now down to 8 seconds. I also learnt that 4% of advertising is looked on favourably, 7% unfavourably, and 89% is ignored or goes completely unnoticed.
If as an entire industry, we’re making stuff that’s in the 4% bit, stuff that competes with the best stories out there, then attention spans will be as long as we want - provided that we keep people entertained and emotionally hooked in. If we’re making stuff that’s in the 89% bit then of course attention spans are 8 seconds. It does seem strange that in this age of attention deficit, we’ll happily watch 12 hours of Game of Thrones in one sitting?
The Box-Set world appreciates the power of great writers - great storytellers - and it understands that writing takes time, which the ad industry, and the world it’s functioning within, no longer affords any of us. But all it means is that advertising is more often than not pushed quickly into the world where it limps straight to the 89% club. Everything competes for our attention on the Internet - great storytelling always wins out in the end.
If you take anything away from this speech, it should be this. You should always try to work with the best storytellers you can, whatever you call them, whatever they do, whatever price point you’re working at - their value will far out way their cost. They can make your audience feel something. And as Bill Bernbach said:
“You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen."
3. The best storytellers respect their audience
I asked Peter Souter why he writes. He said:
“I write for the noise people make when they think something is funny and the noise they don’t make when they think something is sad. That and the money, obviously.”
Then I asked him who he writes for. He said:
“I write for anyone who's ever been loved or been in love. Because I hope that's everyone.”
What a massive softie. Inherent in Peter’s words is a genuine respect for audience - for people - and an understanding of the universal power of story. If we delve a bit deeper, the real reason that Peter, and all the other great storytellers respect their audience, is because first and foremost they are their own audience. They begin by making the work for themselves.
And they’re not just any old audience, they’re their own cynical as hell, picky as fuck audience - if it’s not good enough for them, then it’s not good enough for us. If they don’t feel it, neither will we. We reward them by trusting their judgment – they are our quality control.
I asked Ringan Ledwidge how he chooses the ads he makes, and he said:
“If it feels to me like a story worth telling, then it should be a story worth watching.”
I asked Nikolaj Scherfig whom the writing team wrote The Bridge for. He said:
In an interview recently, David Heyman, Producer of Gravity, Paddington and the Harry Potter series, said:
“I had no idea Gravity would connect with audiences the way it did. I just know what I like, and if I like it, someone else will too.”
We should respect the judgment of great storytellers more, rather than always deferring to focus groups and data. From the time we lived in caves we’ve gravitated to the best storytellers, we look to them as leaders. Yet instead of trusting their experience and opinion now, we defer to Doris from Dudley for the answers. Doris can tell us what she wants, sure, great storytellers can tell her what she needs.
Mark Rylance said recently that he began to have some success as an actor when he stopped trying to be liked and started being honest. People like honest.
Advertising pretends it’s not what it really is these days. It’s not advertising it’s content. It’s not advertising its entertainment. It’s not advertising it’s editorial. It thinks if it comes in disguise to your party, you won’t notice what’s behind its mask.
What you’d prefer is that it rocked up with a nice bottle, talked on your level, was honest, then told you a brilliant story that made you piss yourself laughing. Then you might give it some attention, you might even buy the thing it’s selling - because that’s still the point of it all, isn’t it?
We all love a bit of trash, but we all love stories that appeal to our intelligence too, stories that challenge us, that take us out of where we feel comfortable. Think about the Greek Myths, I thought they’d be too difficult for Darth and Elsa, but I’ve never seen them so wide-eyed - those stories didn’t speak down to them, they spoke up.
So to bring this to a close...
Story is vital to us because it helps us make sense of our outer and inner worlds, and it allows us to test and rehearse our emotions. We gravitate to the best storytellers - it’s a simple fact of life - they make story do its job properly, they make sure we feel something and they mess with our emotions in the most entertaining way possible. And the best storytellers respect their audience. First and foremost, they are their own audience, and they don’t let crap through their own net.
We’re living in a period of uncertainty. We’re all looking for something constant, something real, to believe in. We’re looking to things like common sense, like basic human values - we’re looking to things like story. With that in mind, I’d suggest that we’re not experiencing a renaissance of storytelling - rather just a reconnection to it.
I’ll leave you with one piece of advice from the bestselling storyteller of all time, Stephen King:
“Never use adverbs”
Thanks for reading conscientiously.