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Creating Powerful Stories (CS Forum 2013)

Kicking off the second day of CS Forum 2013, we had Marli Mesibov talking about stories: the fundamentals of our communication.


Stories have been with us for thousands of years. Verbal storytelling is as old as language; written stories date at least as far back as cave paintings. The simple reason for the endurance of stories is that they stick with us – the concepts persist far beyond recall of the source.

While communicating with stories is definitely powerful, we have run into a challenge of late: people’s attention spans – their openness to new stimuli – has contracted (by 33% in the last dozen years!). If we cannot grab someone’s attention in a matter of seconds, we will not be able to tell them our story. If we can engage them, then the longer story can be told. At this point, length is no longer the issue – as long as the story does not become too boring…

A powerful trick of short stories is to draw on cultural background knowledge, inferring far more information than is actually conveyed. Of course, this only works where the background is known, and appropriately referenced.

This need to grab attention quickly is damaging society. News outlets understand it: they will push the stories that have the biggest shock-engagement factor over those that are the most relevant to most people’s lives. The ability to glamorise a subject, to make it attractive in those initial few seconds, is a powerful tool. It can take common knowledge, and spin an engaging tale that incites revolution. It is open to abuse. Likewise, the skill can be reversed to hide important information in boredom. In effect, storytelling is a form of mind control – and not just on the attention level: MRI scans show that the regions of the brain activated while telling a story are the same ones activated in the person receiving the story.

Content strategy is nothing more than the latest incarnation of storytelling, drawing on millennia of expertise. (So why are we trying to reinvent the wheel?)

Within the story itself, there is also a need for structure: a process by which it is evolved. This is effectively writing backwards: start with the moral, insert action to build up to it, define the actors before they participate, and have a setting into which all of this is placed. While stories can be written both about real people and fictional ones, the advantage of fiction is that it can abstract to be a representation of the reader’s own life; this connection creates a stronger emotional dimension.

And finally, to rephrase a philosophical question with increased profundity, “If your story has no audience, is it still a story?”

Raw notes:

  • The power of stories is that their concept stays in our heads, even when we don’t remember the source.
  • Attention span 2012: 8s. Attention span 2000: 12s. So, by 2036, that will be… 0s?
  • Shorter stories need common background knowledge to be effective.
  • The goal: grab attention in 8 seconds, then be long enough to tell a story (with quality).
  • You cannot have a page that’s too long – only one that’s too boring.
  • Everyone likes to think their web site it the centre of the universe. Yeah, right.
  • Fiction, because it is not about somebody who lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourselves – Orson Scott Card
  • Stories write backwards: moral preceded by actions preceded actors by preceded by setting.
  • Stories are mind control. MRI shows storylistening uses the same regions of the brain as storytelling.
  • “Content Strategy” may be new. But it’s just a new form of storytelling. Which draws on millennia of backstory.
  • It doesn’t matter what everyone knows. Turning knowledge into storytelling makes truth powerful. Dangerous.
  • There is a war potentially about to begin, and it didn’t even make the top 3 on Google news…
  • Let’s be honest. Sneakers are not a cool product. But Nike have added story. Adding an emotional dimension.
  • Stories that can be READ: Research + Establish the story + Add details + Distribute
  • Good research is the way we get personalised content.
  • In research, the interviewees vocabulary is as important as their answers.
  • If your story has no audience, is it still a story?

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