Narrative Capital - Why Dramatics Eats Analytics for Lunch
There have been seven ages of story to date – poetry, theater, fiction, cinema, radio, television and now the internet. None has superseded the other – each has enriched the previous ones not only in terms of inspiration but imaginative cross-pollination. In fact, story precedes the evolution of language and writing itself, and the visual language of drama comes full circle on today’s mobile screen. Cave painting and Netflix have a lot in common, mostly the absence of rhetoric. The man who first formulated the recipes of drama – Aristotle – also wrote commandingly on rhetoric. If rhetoric is the art of persuasion, story is the art of involvement – and that is a distinction still to be learned by the vast majority of political and business leaders in the world today.
Andy Grove once remarked tellingly that “Culture eats strategy for lunch”, human nature being what it is. When it comes to mass communication, it would be advisable to remember that dramatics eats analytics for lunch, and that the early Greeks when founding a new city started with the theater – not the agora or public meeting place. Why is this, and why do the vast majority of message makers in today’s corporate and political environment still believe that people will do what they want if they just become exposed to their messaging? Policymakers and business strategists are obsessed with agendas and demographics, with target stakeholders and policy justifications, when they should be more concerned with Aristotle’s dramatic sequence of hamartia, peripeteia and catharsis. Pardon our French, let’s make that empathy, surprise and release. Stories do not start with statistics, they begin in the mud and grit of individual dilemmas, with an empathetic protagonist who may or may not be a hero. Without establishing an imperfect protagonist, even a tragically flawed one (which is where Aristotle’s hamartia comes in), you are wasting our time and your organization’s budget. How many political advertisements or corporate spots open from the get-go with their meaning, without embodying it in any character worth identifying with?
Whereas rhetoric develops from its initial proposition to explore the counter-argument and reinforce the thesis, storytelling takes you on winding, zigzagging ways that always surprise. The central revelation in every story, akin to Aristotle’s peripeteia or big reveal, surprises your expectations in memorable ways after the story has already established that empathetic intimacy. These turns, so central to the dynamic of drama, span the entire range from a joke’s punch line to a poet’s unusual rhyme to a twist in the tale of a short story. Aristotle’s final element of catharsis, the cleansing release of pity and fear, recalls the earliest religious experience of drama in the first cultures. The story sequence, replicated across the world’s cultures from Japanese poetics to American theater, is at heart the narrative code modern political parties and corporate entities now need to learn.
Across the media today, as traditional businesses battle for survival in digital revolutions and aging party incumbents struggle to reinvent their message for a new population, you can see the story evolution at work beneath the technocratic surface. In marketing, native advertising and real-time storytelling overtake traditional pitches. In television, scripted programming overtakes the news and factual documentary. In schools and learning institutes, gamification is making an ever greater impact on conventional classes and lectures. Each of these trends, enabled by technology, is really a narrative development. If teaching by example remains the guiding principle of rhetoric as the central strategy of all parties and corporations, then learning through inquiry – the original meaning of the word story – represents the way forward.
Why? Almost a century and a half ago, the scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus measured the memorability of data. In his well-known Forgetfulness Curve, human beings forget up to 60% of data within 48 hours – before cinema, radio, television or the internet. Today, you will be lucky enough to even get someone’s attention for a second, let alone have the privilege of being forgotten about. The Information Age is really a Story Age in disguise where the most precious commodity is human attention. We can’t spare a second to be pitched, but download twelve hours of BREAKING BAD with greedy gusto. So let’s say we want to reach an audience with a message in the near future, a message relating to a political policy, a new product, a grand business merger or an image campaign, how do we harness the power of story to spread the word?
Story is the source code of communication, the double helix at work inside every great culture and civilization. The Iliad, Hamlet, Moby Dick and CITIZEN KANE are obviously stories, but so too are products, services, brands and parties. The storyteller’s craft begins with an idea that is translated into an unmistakable feeling. The long upwards trajectory of Apple in this regard is exemplary as it exploited the underdog persona to identify with the inner rebel hero in all of us. (Now that Apple is a global monolith no longer shifting products but sharing client experiences, it might be time to revise the autobiographical genre that it was free to indulge as a pure manufacturer.) An idea becomes a unique feeling, as Apple so brilliantly demonstrated. Now that you have the emotional recipe of your strategy or policy, you must split it open to access the dynamic of its inner contradictions. The universally acknowledged and often maligned three-act structure in story is really a shorthand code for this dialectic progression, as character embodies the contradictions of all great themes. A political party is a storyteller of justice, or freedom. A corporate entity is a narrator of value and change. All these energies are charged with polar contradictions and paradoxes.
So why don’t private and public enterprises just get on with storytelling, and stop arguing their positions? Ah, the seven deadly sins of organizational storytelling. The Sin of Pride – resulting in so much one-dimensional autobiography. The Sin of Sloth, leaving our greatest narrative assets undiscovered and undeveloped from sheer lethargy. The narrative Sin of Envy causes our story to sound pretty much like someone else’s and to lack any individual essence. The Sin of Gluttony that gorges our websites with a smorgasbord of success stories but little by way of unique vision or principle. The Sin of Greed inflating our narratives with exaggeration, bombast and self-aggrandizement. And the Sin of Wrath, a narrative spitefulness political parties are prone to as they name-call and assassinate the characters of others. And finally the Sin of Lust, appealing to the basest instincts of our audience in sensual appeal bereft of narrative nuance or dramatic necessity.
Technology is merely the enabler. The medium is not the message. The message must be transformed into story. And story means learning by inquiry, not teaching by example. Politicians, advertisers, entrepreneurs and strategists are the very same people who zap channels at a moment’s boredom, but expect us to attend to their litanies of big data and factoids. Someone once said that poetry should be at least as well-written as prose. In the Seventh Age of Story, messages should be at least as well crafted as dramatic narrative.
Recent research from Microsoft demonstrates that the human attention span is down to just eight seconds. From a tiny twelve seconds a decade ago. We are now officially less attentive than goldfish. With just one sector left in today’s economy – media – the time has come to learn the lessons of poets, playwrights, novelists, screenwriters and showrunners. These are the folks who starve without success, the ones whose only IP is story. In the grand war for human attention that lies ahead, these are the instinctive professionals – not the bankers, consultants, spin doctors or marketers of what have till now been called professional services.
Consider for a moment why we remember Homer, or the collective intelligence known as Homer. Why Homer, when there were dozens and perhaps hundreds of retellings of the Trojan War? The answer is story craft. Consider that in the whole of the Trojan War, lasting ten years, he knew to choose not only the last one, but just 51 days in that final year. Not the very last 51 days either, but the ones leading directly up to climax. There is no resolution of the Trojan War in The Iliad – the resolution is of one man’s emotions. Consider that he chose to frame the entire epic, of 16,000 verses, on one man’s resentment, revenge and forgiveness. The Iliad is not, as the title might imply, the story of Ilium or Troy – but the tale of Achilles’ wrath. Consider that not only the audience but the hero knows from the outset he will perish. That pitches the entire emotional fabric into foreshadowing. There is no dramatic tension in Homer – because everything is fore-ordained. Homer removed the entire field of choice, in order to concentrate solely on what choice actually feels like in human terms. That was his masterstroke. Not the authority, logic and proof of the rhetor – but the empathy, suspense and surprise of the dramatist is what grows and sustains the audience over centuries.
Dramatics eats analytics for lunch because story remains the oldest human techné, predating numbers and even language by many millennia. The art of persuasion, as practised across the advertising and political spheres to date, is rapidly waning in the face of our attention deficit disorder. It is no coincidence that the art of involvement – as evidenced in the recent surge in streaming and binge watching – is booming. Guardians of the Message Factories, take note.
Out of the shadows: Clint Eastwood enacts Chrysler's comeback
At some years’ perspective now, Chrysler’s Half-Time in America ad can now be seen as a classic in the canon of comeback stories. Controversial in its day for its apparent endorsement of government bailouts and/or capitalism, this Clint Eastwood-narrated micro-story typifies an age-old narrative trope, the locker-room war cry – a staging rally as practiced by Abe Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address and Al Pacino in the sports drama ON ANY GIVEN SUNDAY. The script was worked on by Oregon poet Matthew Dickman, and this nexus of literary artist, iconic actor and emblematic brand demonstrates how a powerful tale can be storytold to a national and global audience in two minutes (the ad was aired at half-time during the Superbowl). A nation story in essence, the ad follows the classic Down Up contour of a turnaround tale: “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.” Chrysler shows how it’s possible to integrate negative headlines into the body of your story and still create effective story, in fact better story. Or rather, Wieden & Kennedy showed that, the ad agency charged with telling the tale – and that disconnect also points the way towards owning your story in future. Let’s check out the copy. Stripping back the medley of images, the rousing soundtrack and Clint’s trademark vocals, we get:
[Act I] “It’s halftime. Both teams are in their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half. It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.” [Act II] “The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again. I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life. And times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems like we’ve lost our heart at times. When the fog of division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.”
[Act III] “All that matters now is what’s ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And, how do we win? Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And, what’s true about them is true about all of us. This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin.”
It’s Half-Time in America is a model turnaround story which strikes a national note (reinforced on-screen with the final ironic Imported from Detroit), managing to narrate one corporation’s near-bankruptcy as a natural locker-room rallying cry. Empathy, suspense and surprise are sequenced into the piece, with the last the weakest element. Chrysler is just like us, Clint’s had his downturns too you know, and somehow we’ll master this even if the future is a brick wall. As English poet Philip Larkin put it, stories consist of a beginning, a muddle and an end. Accumulating the inherited gravitas of The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry, this business story glides across fiction and fact to create myth.
Chrysler’s ad may have cost the company $14 million – with the lion’s share going to buy two minutes of Superbowl space – but the essential lessons are simple. Number 1, it’s all fiction, all a literal shaping (which is what that Latin word fictio comes down to, fingere or molding). Secondly, facing up to hard realities gets attention, because it’s in the nature of human life to be challenging. Truth value generates empathy because life is a near-death experience. In this telling, the human and the corporate bodies are equated, taking punches and getting back up. Three Russian dolls, Chrysler inside Detroit inside America, or vice versa as the company might like to see it. Lesson Number 2 is that simplicity works. The Western, Clint’s genre of choice, is savagely simple in form and consists of a lone stranger coming to town, cleaning it up and leaving it behind. As Tolstoy noted: “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Simplicity is what attracted great screen storytellers like Anthony Mann to the Western, seeing in it a purity akin to the Greek myths. Just as many products fail because their gadgetry lacks an essential functionality, many Hollywood movies today fail because without special effects and computers they are not even simple. With a plethora of committee voices at work in corporate story, and divided agendas across the agency divide, simplicity is the first victim.
And finally, lesson 3. If you can’t afford Clint Eastwood, or Wieden & Kennedy, or even a government bailout, you can probably afford a Matthew Dickman. Start with a basic poesis, and don’t attempt to impress your way forward without building an essential human bridge of vulnerability. Stories are, literally, ‘learnings by inquiry’ and don’t provide rhetorical answers. Half-Time in America didn’t tell you to buy Chrysler. Chrysler didn’t even supply vehicles for the film. They were reaching down much deeper than mere product. Chrysler was cave painting. And it worked.