Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal was a welcome divergence from the media- and business-centric books we’ve been reviewing over the past few months. Catapulting off of the idea of story’s ubiquity in our lives, Gottschall allows the basic concept of story to retain its mythic charm, proving its power over the human mind. Gottschall takes a historical and even anthropological approach that was fascinating and allowed the book to beat on strongly and entertainingly.
One major basis for Gottschall’s argument is that “Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes and values are strongly influenced by story.” This view is certainly in sync with current thought leadership in media and advertising; but the intriguing follow-up question that Gottschall’s text does not ask is how proof of storytelling’s influence translates into proof of storytelling’s effectiveness for brands. It is a question often asked these days, but not as often tackled.
Gottschall touches on the balance between the writer’s intention and the reader’s participation, a point I discussed in one of my earlier reviews on Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion. One of my favorite quotes in his book explains this dynamic:
The writer is not…an all-powerful architect of our reading experience. The writer guides the way we imagine but does not determine it. A film begins with a writer producing a screenplay. But it is the director who brings the screenplay to life, filling in most of the details. So it is with any story. A writer lays down words… they need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader’s imagination.
Gottschall also argues, “when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard.” I think he is right in asserting that readers feel comfort, and even trust, when connecting to a story. But there is even more comfort involved in exactly what Gottschall described above—the immersion and creative participation that the audience is granted.
Lingering questions regarding the implications of these assertions for the media and business worlds convinced me to revisit Gottschall’s article on FastCompany.com that first led me to this book. In “Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon,” Gottschall provides ample proof that story is the most powerful instrument of communication for businesses, in which “storytelling is all the rage.” Specifically, media company “executives are continuously told that they must be creative storytellers: they have to spin compelling narratives about their products and brands that emotionally transport consumers.” For anyone particularly interested in this, read Gottschall’s other article on Huffington post, where he records ten ways that story dominates our lives, specifically delving into gaming and television.
According to Gottschall, “video games may become the 21st century’s dominant form of storytelling. The games allow us to be the rock-jawed hero of an action film or a fleshed-out character inside interactive role playing games (RPGs) like The World of Warcraft. Players describe the experience of playing RPGs as “being inside a novel as it is being written.”
He goes on to describe commercials, which “social scientists define as ‘fictional screen media’; they are half-minute short-stories.”
Once again, I’m curious to hear more: if stories told through TV commercials are as powerful as Gottschall argues they are, what can he say of the immersive experience of branded entertainment platforms?
Just as interesting as the article itself were some of the comments it elicited. In response to Gottschall’s support of storytelling’s alluring influence, one reader asked “what about our natural inclination to resist stereotyping?” If each story targets a particular audience with an assumed set of common values, “what’s the threshold for feeling suitably and securely connected” versus wanting to separate ourselves? Finally, whereas Gottschall argues that people are dominated by emotion, a few readers insisted that stories carry “logic and reason” rather than replace it. It is a seemingly simple, but important, point—what balance between emotion and reason do brand storytellers look to achieve?