Lessons in yarn-spinning from The Story 2018

The Story

Once upon a time, I went to The Story 2018 and had an absolute blast.

So I’ll make you a deal.

Let me meander for a bit about the essence of my time spent enjoying this fab lineup, and if you’ll indulge me, I’ll eventually bring it around to spicing up your organisation’s presence. A happy ending if you will, the soul of any good story.

What’s The Story?

The Story conference is run by the good folk at Storythings, a content studio like ourselves who have absolutely nailed the artistry behind putting the right messages in the right places for the right audiences. In other words, actual storytelling, a topic close to my heart.

This focus on the craft is what made the day so enjoyable, and also hard to shoehorn into a list of business takeaways. Long live that aversion to labels and boxes, but there was definitely a common theme in there; the power of stories to be more than just stories.

As humans, we construct the realities in which we live based on the stories we tell ourselves. You don’t need to believe Santa Claus is ‘real’ in order to believe that people will swap gifts at Christmas.

We got deep, moving accounts of how reconnecting with or reframing one’s own story had big knock-on effects from the likes of Tanya Byrne and the hilarious Juno Dawson. We were also treated to the big picture, with an intellectually heavyweight talk from the Oxford Internet Institute’s Lisa-Maria Neudert.

Fake news, messiahs, and naughty boys

In what might have been my pick for talk of the day, Lisa-Maria spoke about the grim reality of attention-hacking in an age of social media echo chambers.

Were you aware that 126 million Americans were exposed to ‘fake news’ over the course of the 2016 election? 19 million of those actively engaged with it!

We live in a world where 60% of social media users have difficulty telling what’s real and what isn’t. Journalists are obsolete as gate-keepers of information, and that opens up a great many possibilities for the erudite storyteller.

There’s the one about the Macedonian teenagers who realised pushing fake news about Trump netted them a pretty penny in ad revenue. They’d made $16,000 before anyone cottoned on. Fake news, but very real money.

Our desire to cling to a comforting story has turned us into a society of unwitting dupes. In the USA, 50% of news consumed on Facebook was fake, whereas in France, the ratio was lower, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 7:1.

This, Lisa-Maria attributed to the French’s greater propensity to share news among their families and communities. There’s some kind of filter, a sanity check there which isn’t as prevalent in American society.

Americans are used to logging into Facebook and entering a micro-targeted world tailored to their specific desires, preferences, and prejudices. Us Brits aren’t much better, our ratio of fake to real news is around 4:1.

If you aren’t grudgingly bowing before the genius of Trump’s media team (and their… friends overseas), you’re doing it wrong. They’ve managed to craft a story where a dirty old man is saviour of the downtrodden, and that same story got that same dirty old man into the Oval Office.

Now imagine if you had some sense of shared experience, the product or service your organisation provides, for example. What’s stopping you from creating whatever story, thus manifesting whatever reality you want, just by amplifying that experience?

If your concern is whether doing so would be ‘commercially viable,’ then hold onto your hats, and let me take you on a trip to Hoxton Street.

Marketing for monsters

The whole conference was opened by the Ministry of Stories, an organisation which helps young people develop their talent for writing. How do you fund such an organisation? Well, presumably through the usual channels, but there’s also the reality of Hoxton Street Monster Supplies.

In the ‘realest’ most objective terms, this is a non-profit enterprise which stocks white-labelled fast-moving consumer goods and novelties. Boring, right?

But what if I told you it was, in fact, a 200-year old purveyor of quality goods for monsters, fiends, and the walking undead. Dental floss for vampires shares shelf space with bars of earwax (fudge) and cans of mortal terror (humbugs).

The story is the business, and it works. People are unlikely to pay £10 for a tin of sweets elsewhere, even if it does come with a sweet short story. But here, what they’re really buying is their part of that shared experience, their place in a fantastical world that’s been created for them.

This business model isn’t a fluke, nor is it just another London peculiarity. Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. served as inspiration, and the idea has since expanded to Yorkshire’s Grimm & Co, and Brighton’s Little Green Pig.

Reject reality, write your own

Now, I promised you something you could use for your marketing. These are the two key themes which The Story reinforced in my mind:

  • Truth, now more than ever before, depends on what you mean by ‘truth.’

  • People buy stories, the basis for more or less all marketing ever.

With these two elemental ideas in mind: what’s your excuse?

Do you make accounting software? Stand out in what is, let’s face it, a pretty grey industry and be the accounting software of choice for galactic space cadets!

Are you a manufacturer of gardening equipment? Well now you’re the gnome-tested, wizard-approved supplier to the King of Narnia.

Let’s have a quickfire round:

  • Satanic plumber

  • Jedi office stationery supplier

  • time-travelling shoemaker

  • Wild West logistics

  • mermaid estate agents.

You’re limited only by how much imagination you allow yourself to have. You can weave your wildest dreams subtly into tiny niche elements of your marketing mix, or you can go all out with a full rebrand.

The bottom line is, these things work. And in an internet choked with banal, by-the-numbers content, you need that extra angle to get noticed. You need your attention hack. You need to give your audience something to connect to, which speaks to them beyond the urge to consume.

But to tell a great story, you need a great storyteller. Talk to Sookio about adding that extra splash of creativity to your messaging, and spinning a yarn that’ll bring them running.

The end.