You are not a ‘storyteller’, you’re pitching a toothpaste commercial

Sixteen Corners' Mike Cardillo warns that the rush to declare every piece of creative a 'story' has simultaneously overvalued and undervalued its power.

The era of the story is upon us.

No longer confined to our lounge rooms, cinemas and nightstands, the connection economy sees fit to thrust stories in our pockets, hands and newsfeeds every hour of the day. It has become the necessity of the digital age, to the point where even Instagram has “stories”, lest a single photo not sufficiently convey how much happier you are than everyone else.

Such is the unprecedented ease of broadcasting a story, that every human whose job it is to sell stuff now thinks that selling is synonymous with storytelling, as though people wouldn’t do their holiday shopping unless spurred on by the tear-jerking fable of a lonely Christmas tree ornament.

Stories that suck

The idealisation of storytelling, that noble art of the ages, ignores the one truism of storytelling – that most stories are shit.

The humble marketer has become blindly devoted to the idea of story, giving birth to a new category called simply “content”, its own label declaring said contents valuable, despite evidence to the contrary.

The rush to declare every piece of content a “story” has simultaneously overvalued and undervalued the power of storytelling. Overvalued because labelling something a story is intended to somehow legitimise even the most crass pieces of marketing; undervalued because in the rush to declare everyone a storyteller, we have forgotten that good storytellers are actually a rare commodity.

Stefan Sagemeister puts it even more bluntly: “Recently I read an interview with somebody who designs roller coasters, and he referred to himself as a storyteller. No fuckhead, you are not a storyteller! You’re a roller coaster designer, and that’s fantastic! […] Or if you are a storyteller… that’s a fucking bullshit story. That’s boring.”

We’ve elevated storytelling as the artform of the cultured human, to the point where actual, grown adults act as though they’re wandering bards sharing tales around an enraptured campfire every time they pitch a toothpaste commercial.

Storytelling vs validation

The story-fication of everything, from shopping centres to websites to the unboxing a hairdryer, has intended to codify our collective experience, but its real agenda is to soothe the ego of the wannabe novelist churning out thinly veiled infomercials.

As Mac Schwerin writes: “’Telling a brand’s story’ presupposes that some version of the story was always there, waiting to be plucked from the ether by a creative medium and midwifed into tangibility.”

We have inserted ourselves into the lineage of great poets and fabulists, forgetting that few classic novels have been written about energy drinks.

For all this posturing and postulating, we’ve forgotten that storytelling isn’t inherently ennobling. It’s what the story itself communicates, transmits, evokes. It’s the ability to transport an audience to a galaxy far, far away, and yet still have them emotionally resonate with the events therein.

Storytelling is not an innate ability granted to every human at birth. It is not a quality you can obtain by thinking about reading that Joseph Campbell book on your shelf.

Storytelling is a fight, a brutal contact sport that bloodies the nose and batters the ego. It is a process of humiliating yourself at the altar of the keyboard or notepad, over and over again, until that thing you so value to communicate is rendered somewhat – barely – passable to thine own eyes. Storytelling is entering a relationship with your own story, and slowly realising you have no way of pleasing it.

Storytelling is not so much a skill as it is a muscle. It must be exercised to be of much use to anyone.

Live in the moment

We need to be comfortable in the knowledge that storytelling is not the marketer’s end goal; it is eliciting a response. That response can be coaxed via a story, but it is enough to simply evoke a momentary sensation of wonder, of amusement, of exhilaration, without tying it to a grand tradition of drama.

Truly great ads allow you to feel something for a product you couldn’t have cared less about 30 seconds earlier. They are moments – captured, crafted and cared for – but still just moments.

And generally, these moments work best not by guiding you on a journey, but by rapidly escalating their joys in surprising ways, or by daring you to make sense of it before the punchline reveals itself.

There will always be a place for stories in advertising, but as exciting outliers and oddities. The indelible advertising of the past has been built on catchphrases, jingles and fanfares, on the ability to capture people’s imaginations, emotions and desires in a fleeting second of connection.

They’re not stories worth telling. But they are moments worth sharing. And there’s no shame in that.

Mike Cardillo is co-founder and ECD of video production company Sixteen Corners.


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