Thursday, November 27, 2014

Share Me a Story

Image source: | | (Joseph Campbell left, Robert McKee middle, Christopher Booker right)

Having spent my professional life navigating between hard process and soft creative, I long ago came to the conclusion that the stories that companies tell and share are equal to if not more so than the actual product.

People need stories to make sense of and give shape to their lives. Indeed, one could make the argument that dreams demonstrate storytelling to be a kind of physiological necessity. In recent years, the business world has seen an interesting shift in relation to storytelling. It’s no longer enough for businesses to tout a great product or service, a new trend or cool innovation. Consumers want to know what kind of company they’re purchasing from, how its employees work and play, and the inspiration behind the brand. More and more, consumers want to experience brands through human interest stories, and businesses are learning to shape and share their stories through that lens.

Fortunately, the fundamentals of storytelling haven’t changed much through history. As described in classics of the form such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Robert McKee’s Story, and Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, the archetypal stories the world over—the great myths and fables, from the Greek gods and goddesses The Matrix—all adhere to the same basic structure.

First, you start with a protagonist who has a goal he wants to achieve that sets him out on a journey. But “boy meets girl and they live happily ever after” isn’t much of a story, right? Stories need to generate suspense in the form of conflict. So, the protagonist needs to be faced with an obstacle that will test his abilities and which he will need to overcome. (It’s worth noting here that from a business storytelling perspective the obstacle, or the antagonist, doesn’t need to be a person, Darth Vader, or Voldemort, rather, an unmet need in the marketplace.) Finally, comes the resolution, during which the hero is tested and will either achieve or fail to reach his goal.

Stories matter. Especially in an age of information overload, honest and emotive storytelling can make all the difference. My “red paper” Brand Loyalty Reloaded, describes research done by an economist and neurobiologist at Claremont Graduate University who identified that when people love brands more than a person, the reaction is always triggered by a “story button.”

Here’s a chart to pin to your wall as a reminder of the differences between information and story. It comes from my 2005 book Sisomo: the future on screen. Use it the next time you’re hoping to transform that boring brief, uninspired press release, dry data analysis, or moribund memo into an emotive piece of storytelling, ask yourself which column is the more vital and engaging:

Information Story
Fills you up Moves you on
Facts Acts
Citing Exciting
Reams Dreams
Promotional Emotional
Static Dramatic
Check lists Casts of characters
Compiling Compelling
Annotated Animated
Feeding the brain Touching the heart
Tables Fables
Expires Inspires

Stories have been with us from the beginning and will continue to resonate as long as people gather round screens. In a brave new digital age, we have more storytelling tools at our fingertips than ever before. But when it comes to storytelling fundamentals—the journey of the hero and crisis-conflict-resolution structure—the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

All Blacks’ ABC

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Saturday at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff concluded a gratifying season for the All Blacks. An 86% win record across 13 tests, Richie McCaw completed a remarkable 100 tests as captain, and the platform set to take on the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. There has been a lot of press about this team, especially about their resilience and focus on playing the full 80 minutes. “If you get them fit enough and skilled enough you can play with a bit of intensity,” says coach Steve Hansen in a typically understated way. Former Scotland coach and player Sir Ian McGeechan wrote a long piece in The Telegraph about Steve Hansen and “coaching the world’s best team.”

The piece I want to call out is Hansen’s ABC and how adjusting and adapting is perhaps the most important element of what happens in the pitch. Geech asks the question “But why do All Blacks always seem to be better decision-makers than other players?” “You need some sort of structure to be able to play but at the end of the day the opposition tells you how you can play,” says Hansen. “It’s what I call ABC. You assume something through analysis. Believe nothing and go out and confirm it. So from the analysis you might say that this move might work, but it will only work if they continue defending the same way they have been. If you get out there and they have changed their defensive pattern, then the move is useless. So you need to have your players understanding why the move works and why it won’t work, so that they can adjust and adapt. It is no different from business. The people that adjust and adapt the quickest come out on top.”

Geech again: “New Zealand’s philosophy sounds little different, with the players also given a lot of responsibility.” “On a game day the players have total responsibility,” Hansen says. “At the beginning of the week we start off, the assistant coach and myself, and look at how we want to play, with some feedback from some of the specialist coaches. We will take that to what we call a strategy group and then we dovetail that in together and say: ‘Right, this is how we want to play this game.’ We build the understanding of that through the week, using the ABC. By Thursday the team run is about introducing some real intensity into that process and then on Friday I don’t even get changed. The captain takes that and then Saturday is all about the players only. It’s total ownership. All I’m doing is observing and trying to help find the ABC if they are not seeing it.”

My old school mate (aka Old Maestro) and co-founding father of The Old Lancastrian Black Sheep Club, Brian Ashton, follows an ABC mantra too. His ABC is all about Ambition, Belief and Courage – something the AB’s have in spades. I’ve told Brian he was born in the wrong country!!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Branding and Advertising for Entrepreneurs

I sat down with’s Catherine Clifford a few weeks ago for an intense interview about start-ups and branding. The two go very much hand-in-hand, though most entrepreneurs get them the wrong way around. How so? They start with product not people, solutions rather than needs, loyalty for a reason, not beyond reason. Following so far? has posted two videos well within the average attention span, the first “Good Companies Make You Think. Great Companies Make You Feel” is about making the big decisions with your heart, the little ones with your head; and the second “Why Your Brand Is More Important Than Your Product” is about answering the question “how will this improve my life?”

Monday, November 24, 2014


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I went to see Brad Pitt’s Fury yesterday. The best war movie I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan. (Although Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was unmissable). Gripping. Tight. And uncomprisingly unforgettable. Catch it if you can.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Sounds of Our Lives

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If you had to ‘brand’ your city or town with a tune, what would it be? In New York City’s case, it’s hard to go past Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ (though “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift is a lively reprise). However, most of the sound we typically associate with the place we live is accidental and unpleasant. We stand on street corners shouting over the sound of passing traffic. We’re certainly not humming along to Frank Sinatra.

A recent article raised an interesting question about why brands, but not cities, have sonic strategies. Brands have been pairing sounds and music with products, companies, organizations and ideas for decades. Composer Walter Werzowa’s five note ‘Intel bong’ jingle is arguably one of the most famous, reportedly broadcast once every five minutes somewhere in the world.

‘Sonic strategy’ in the context of towns and cities refers to a wide range of sounds. Sure, we have the usual sirens, subway announcements and crosswalk signals that usher us through our daily lives. But where’s the sonic Feng Shui?

Joel Beckerman, composer of jingles for AT&T, CBS and others, argues that bad sound is as detrimental to quality of life as bad streetlights or poor sidewalks. He wants us to start thinking with our ears and about the impact of our ‘sonic environment’. A TED talk by Julian Treasure, ‘4 ways sound affects us’, makes a similar appeal to raise sound in our consciousness, arguing that bad sounds are bad for our health and productivity.

Savvy sound designers are starting to do more. In Tokyo, subway stations each have their own jingle as a way to identify different stops. The Moscow metro indicates a train’s direction by using either a male or female announcer. Simple. Innovative.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Scoring With Sustainability

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There are billions of sports fans around the world. Each Premier League match attracts an average global audience of 12.3 million people. This year's Champions League final reached an estimated 380 million football fans. These fans watch and support their team – so what if their team supported sustainability? Sport has the potential to reach and influence a huge audience of people, which means huge potential for delivering environmental messages and promoting behaviour change.

Recently, Gloucestershire-based football club Forest Green Rovers created the UK’s first organic football pitch. Over just three years, the club has eliminated all nitrogen-based fertilisers and chemicals from its ground maintenance. The club now uses plant-derived products on their field, and off the pitch they’re even washing their team kit in phosphate-free washing powder.

Forest Green Rovers are a Conference Premier team, four leagues below the Premier League. Is there any reason that top flight teams can’t make steps to do the same? In New Zealand, a social enterprise called Project Lightfoot is leading the charge by working with community sports teams for free to make environmental improvements, and getting prominent New Zealand sports stars on board to champion the cause.

Compared to the fate of the planet, changes around the kicking, hitting and throwing of balls might seem a bit small. However, sports teams and businesses can use their platform and huge influence to increase awareness of sustainability. Even small changes could get people thinking twice, saving energy, cutting waste and reducing pollution.