What is a story?

Yesterday at a company offsite, I was asked to do a short presentation on what a story is, to get people thinking outside of the usual definitions of a story.

I’d just been to The Story on Friday, so a lot of what I said drew on what I’d heard there, naturally. As a quick aside, Matt Locke did a fantastic job with lining up speakers for The Story, I’ll definitely go again next year.

When anyone asks a child what their favourite story is, they’ll most likely think of fairy tales. The brilliant thing about fairy tales is that it opens our imagination up to different possibilities. A favourite exercise of mine is the ‘what if’ game. What if Cinderella didn’t lose her glass slipper, how would the prince have found her? What if Rapunzel had short hair instead of long hair?

And then you grow up and you get cynical, because you realize life isn’t a fairy tale. And most of us stop being inspired by the stories of our childhood. That’s because we still think stories are only told in the form of fairytales. But they aren’t.

Think of magic. A good magician is an excellent storyteller who keeps you gasping at each big reveal. I sat enthralled watching Derren Brown on TV just the other day. Each magic act is a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end – if a magician can’t tell a good story, that’s the end of his career. You’re not going to get a magician saying just ‘Here’s a hat. And I’m pulling a rabbit out of it. The end.’ At The Story, Anthony Owen, a magician who has the wonderful job title of Head of Magic at Objective Productions, told us the story of one of the ‘magic’ shows he worked on in the ’70’s, where a girl convinced her friend that she was a psychic when she followed the instructions on a BBC 3 show. Except that it wasn’t magic, it was rigged.

Journalism. A journalist needs to be able to weave a good story with his words if he wants to keep his readers coming back to the newspaper for more. The same story told in 2 different ways can influence public opinion very easily. So, instead of ‘Terrorists bring down Twin Towers’, if the story was ‘Government involvement suspected in 9/11 conspiracy’, people would react very differently. So think of how you structure your argument.

Urban landscapes. The designer Stefan Sagmeister was asked by urban strategist Scott Burnham if one of his quotes could be used in an artwork in Amsterdam (Sagmeister writes down a quote a day in his daily diary). And Burnham used millions of penny coins to get people to fill in beautifully outlined letters in a large square. It was part of the story of the city for all of one night, when someone alerted the police and they took it all away. Each city tells its story with its buildings, its roads, its people, its food, its public spaces. Even its name. And when you think of it, a city is huge. Yet people feel connected to them. New Yorkers are New Yorkers for life even if they move away, and if you meet a Londoner they will always talk about the weather. So what anchors your story in a way that will make people remember it wherever they are?

Music. People who listen to music as albums will understand this a bit more than those that don’t. There is a logic to the way a music album is structured, usually mandated by the producer. They want to make sure that when people listen to an album, it flows naturally, and that every song is in its place. Simon Thornton and Matt Sheret had a lovely conversation about music as a story last Friday. When you think about it, hit songs sometimes have two of three versions – it would be very strange if they were all placed one after the other. Instead they are interspersed throughout the album. So think of how you structure your story.

And activism. The Occupy movement had a story: that of the 99%. It leveraged the anti-capitalist sentiment that a lot of people still feel, thanks to the economic crisis. If it didn’t tap into the story of the majority, no one would have given it this much attention. In fact, Cowbird used the Occupy movement as it’s first key storytelling thread. Ellie Harrison spoke at The Story about activism, along with her work as an artist, and referenced her role in Bring Back British Rail, a small but growing movement to act against rising train fares. An example of how activist stories don’t work is the groups of people always hanging around outside the Houses of Parliament in London, who certainly don’t capture people’s imaginations and are probably seen as more of a nuisance than anything else. So what over-riding theme is your story rooted in, and do people really care about it? That’s always a fair indication of whether your story will be a good one: will people give a shit?

I ended with a quote from a brand that to me tells a fantastic story: Blake Mycoskie is the founder of TOMS shoes, who donate a pair to a child in the developing world for every pair they sell in the Western world. To him, people don’t just buy Toms shoes, they tell the story of the brand. I think it is vital to think of how we can tell a brand story, rather than focus on the more narrow perspective of a one-off campaign.

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