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How Storytelling Creates a Need for Your Data

By Michael Neelsen

In 1994, astrophysicist Kip Thorne wrote the book “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy”.

The title of the book sounds daunting. One would assume it to be filled with scientific theories and language that would surely alienate any readers without a degree in astronomy or cosmology. So Mr. Thorne opened his first chapter with a story.

The story put the reader in the role of captain of a spacecraft commissioned with exploring the black hole called “Hades”. Your mission: study the black hole and radio back your findings.

As your spacecraft approaches the black hole, your sensors detect evidence of the hole’s presence. “The atoms of gas that sparsely populate interstellar space, approximately one in each cubic centimeter, are being pulled by the hole’s gravity. If something isn’t done, your starship too will be sucked in.”

Kip Thorne didn’t decide to open his book with a story just because it’s fun (though it is!). There is very deliberate purpose behind this. By opening with a story where the “reader as spaceship captain” is teetering on the brink of a black hole, he has put the audience in the position of needing to know how the story ends – how the captain maneuvers around the black hole. In essence, the reader is now asking for the science of black holes.

This is the essence of purposeful storytelling. By telling stories, we create a gap – a void – that the audience desperately wants to fill in, and the answer to their call – the thing that will satiate their desperation – is your data, features, messaging, facts, etc.

In Thorne’s book, the power of drama compels the audience to seek out how black holes work in order to find out how the story ends. Without the story, many readers would have a hard time just dryly learning the facts. The story gives the facts meaning – a place of momentary priority in their lives.

As brand storytellers, we spend a lot of time talking about the differences between traditional advertising and storytelling. Sometimes it’s easier to articulate what storytelling is not.

Storytelling is not:

–       a list of features and benefits

–       product specs

–       data

–       a mood

–       a style

–       a sequence of events

–       a slice of life

–       your brand messaging

In business, storytelling is the art of making your data, features, benefits and messaging vital to the lives of your audience. This is not a foofy, soft, or intangible thing. It’s grounded in a series of straightforward, practical principles and human psychology.

You want your audience to care about your message, your product specs, or your data. Fair enough. Ask yourself, “When in my day-to-day life do I crave information?”

Human beings seek out information when there is a gap of understanding, resources, or knowledge that they need to fill. So as storytellers, our job is to create that need – a carefully crafted absence of information that begs a solution.

In storytelling, you craft a narrative with a turning point that causes the audience to subconsciously ask for your information. So what is a turning point?

World-renowned storytelling guru Robert McKee believes there are four components to a turning point:

–       Surprise (“Wow! I didn’t expect that to happen!”)

–       Curiosity (“Wait… why did that happen?”)

–       Insight (“Ahh… that is why it happened. And here is how I can avoid this obstacle in the future.”)

–       New Direction (“With this new information, I will take this new action moving forward to make sure I avoid this obstacle in the future.”)

If we revisit Kip Thorne’s short story, what if in the next moment, the starship is sucked into the black hole and everybody on board dies? The reader would first experience surprise. “Whoa! I didn’t expect that to happen!” The very next thought would be, “Why did that happen?”

And with that question the reader is right where Mr. Thorne wanted them. They are now asking for his scientific theory.

This is the major boon of brand storytelling, for how else do you get your audience to consciously ask for your data?