“What’s IS story? And what ISN’T?” … Part 2: The Human Touch

Just before tradition forced me to vanish into a (non-white, sometimes rainy, sometimes spring-like warm, but very nutritious) Christmas break, I had touched upon the human touch of stories. In my eyes one of the most amusing and annoying misunderstandings in today’s business communication, the “human element”, right …

A misunderstanding that started off with two seemingly positive and delectable developments, for privateers as well as inside corporations great and small:

  1. Technology (once again), especially the ubiquity of HD-ready devices:
    Just a couple of years ago you needed a real pro with a real pro equipment to produce a pro piece of film for you, privately or as a brand. But today: Camcorders, digital cameras, even smart phones, available at reasonable prices, easy to handle, one-button simplicity and … Tadaah! Here’s your great video! Or at least a moving image with an .mpeg or .mov or .whatever file ending. Or at least something that conforms to the minimum standards of standard video players and standard video platforms. But does that make it a good video, let alone a good, interesting, appealing, relevant piece of communications collateral? More on the nay side, I would say.
  1. Storytelling, the latest magical bandwagon for marketers (and bloggers, haha!) to jump on, mostly without a valid ticket, let alone a driving license:
    I remember, Hippocampus, here we go again: It was some time in the winter of 2008, I was invited to give a 15-minute impulse speech at a conference of top communications managers from all over the world, about the potential of storytelling in business-to-business communications. Very few slides. No flow charts. No processes. No figures. That already scary enough for advertising dinosaurs and communicator-wannabe engineers. Just a couple of quotes, trying to give them an idea of what the heck this humanist and literary scholar was a) doing here and b) talking about. After my 15 Warhol minutes and some drinks at the hotel bar: I thought they had gotten the idea, theoretically.

Unfortunately, I was wrong, I had failed. It turned out that the distilled gist they had taken away was not plot, change, suspense, surprise, conflict or other story dynamics of that kind; it was “the human element”. Not a bad thing at all, don’t get me wrong, and surely a valuable ingredient for a good story full of identification potential and stuff, but: If you think putting one or two humans onto screen, slide or paper turns messaging into story: wrong end of the stick.

Example one:
Interview your real Sales manager human being in front of his real product for a real product website talking about the product’s really great features: Ain’t no story.
Change of approach: Find out who this Sales guy person is, where his passion comes from, what he’s been through to get to where he is today, what he loves to do in his leisure time which might in a way be related to the benefits of his great product? More like it, story-wise, at least some potential story angles there.

Example two:
Show a real cute girl patient in a hospital climbing into a CT scanner, two grown-ups with concerned looks on their faces, underlay some emotional music and a compassionate voice over for a 30-second TV spot: Ain’t no story.
Change of approach: Dig deeper and tell that girl’s (hi)story, her ordeal, the ups and downs she and her family had to go through until they finally found a way to access this unique, life-saving medical device … Bang! There’s your story!

Let’s add another perspective to this human element thing:

Do you think you could lament for the fate of an ant?
http://youtu.be/jB8wKvI0_8E

Could you anxiously witness every minute of a toy’s story?
http://youtu.be/7MM1k1SSlWs

Or an alien’s?
http://youtu.be/_7-2PB4jj2o

Or a machine’s?
http://youtu.be/9rlI3Xg9g_A

Gee, took me long to get my thoughts together here, must be the turkey still weighing on my concentration … so, what I’m getting at:

  1. You don’t need a human being for a good story, you need an element of humanity. And there are many business communication products out there with many humans, but lacking humanity, hence: They don’t work.
  2. Whoever is the hero of your story – man, machine or animal: Whatever happens to him (or her) needs to resonate with human emotions, needs to offer human identification, needs to feel humanly familiar.
  3. Oh and – I may have mentioned it before: Something needs to actually HAPPEN, before you decide whom it happens to.

Yet, the good news at the end of a long post and year: There’s hope and quite a number of really interesting storytelling projects out there in the business world already, rays of hope in a dark, loud and boring corporate messaging world.

So, I’d like to start 2014 with my personal top 5 selection. Permitted that New Year’s Eve is gentle to me …

In any case:

The story goes on … here … soon.

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