By Jim McCarthy May 7, 2012 0 comments

The Story War

I’m a storyteller.  It’s true.  Ask anyone who knows me, or particularly those who either work for me or live in my house.  Just about every principle ends up accompanied by a story.  Some of those stories are anecdotes I’ve either experienced or heard, and some are made right up to illustrate my point.

For example, there was this one time when…well, I’ll spare you.  This could go on all day if I get started.

I was fascinated by the conclusion of some research I read about today, which says that fiction changes us, almost literally changes our minds.  Here’s a snippet from this fascinating piece in the Boston Globe:

“… research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.

But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds.”

The example in the piece is the TV show Modern Family which among other characters has a gay couple whose relationship is neither frowned on by the people around them nor a big focus for the story.  They’re just there, alongside every other character.  This “nonjudgmental treatment” of gay characters, the article says, leads to an increase in nonjudgmental attitudes about gay couples among those who watch.  In other words, the story doesn’t have to say “you shouldn’t condemn people for their homosexuality” overtly; simply by telling the story the way it does, attitudes change.

This shouldn’t be too surprising.  Think of the patterns people fall into just because of repeated exposure.  The template for a Romantic Comedy becomes for some people the way they want their lives to actually happen (alas).  Even the dumb-ass motifs of reality TV, like “forming alliances” and “voting people off the island” invade real life on a regular basis.

So are stories good or bad?  Or does it depend on the story?

I’ll pass on answering that to make a different point: people in live entertainment need to see that we are in a story war with, well, every other kind of entertainment and even information out there.  I don’t mean it’s a zero-sum game or people in our industry should worry about “beating” books and movies or whatever, but I do mean that strong stories will win the hearts and minds of the marketplace and bring relevance and strength to the business.

What do I mean by a “strong” story?  You can’t define it in your own terms; it has to be customer defined, and it’s rather Darwinian because what I mean is this: the stories that stick with larger groups of people are the strong ones.  Subjective judgments about quality of writing or all of that may be guesses or proxies for a “strong” story, but ultimately, a story survives because somebody who experienced it not only enjoyed it, but carries it with them.  This research hints at that very strongly.

And stories don’t even really have to be literal stories.  What’s the “story” of a rock band or a basketball team?  It could be a stray handful of lyrics or the way a star player brings everything he’s got to the game he loves.  People can fill in the “story” of Lebron James or Elton John for themselves.  It’s no trouble at all, and if that story dominates their minds, there’s perhaps less room for another story.

Which is why I call it a ‘story war.’  The human mind is a bit like a grocery store, in that there’s only so much shelf space.  It may not be a fixed and straightforward amount of “space” but there’s a limit, and for something new to be put on a full shelf, something else has to be removed.

Think about all the shelf space Harry Potter has among the millenials.  That’s a strong story, and I don’t just mean the details of the plots of the books.

So this is another call to avoid any trace of complacency in building great “stories” into our live entertainment.  Live stuff is emotional and powerful in the moment, and part of that is a trick of our biology, tuned to respond to the emotions of others.  And when there are hundreds or even thousands of other people, that response is all the more powerful.

But what happens when you’re not in the room with those people?  We still reflect on the emotions we felt, but if the “story” isn’t strong, we may not quite be able to remember why we were so swept up in the event itself.

So this story war is about working hard not just to give people a great experience during the show, game or performance, but before it and perhaps more importantly, after it, for a long, long time to come.

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