Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in May-Jun 2016

The science of storytelling

Feature
Why great storytelling is crucial to advertising.

About six months ago, I found myself happily lost among the many aisles of a Kinokuniya in Dubai. Somewhere at the intersection of Philosophy and History, I stood, grazing my way through something to do with Kierkegaard, something or the other about Foucault. Crouched and careful, I sifted through that magnificent shelf while cradling my precious contenders in my arms.

A bookish silence floated about; a reverence for the ideals this sort of place invokes hung in the air.

An elderly Teutonic uncle sat near me placidly, his favourites indulgently spread out around him. Uncle and I continued to ignore one another – as polite people do – enthralled in our private intellectual pursuits.

Suddenly the reverent silence is unceremoniously sky bombed by the nasal-loud-gossipy-chatter of young women. Uncle sitting on the floor fidgets in annoyance; I throw a mildly disapproving look at the girls and turn back to the books and that is when the unthinkable happens...

Girl 1 discovers Churchill’s biography: “Oh hey! It’s Churchill!”

Girl 2 replies: “I know that guy! He’s like that psychologist right?”

Uncle’s face swings in my direction... I stare back at uncle. My brown face finds its horrified expression mirrored in his white-wrinkled one; an expression that says “What the f$@* has this world come to?! Lift me God –

I want to die. She called Churchill a psychologist.”

This is a true story.

But... what if I added an end slide to this story that said... “Don’t be that girl; read a damn book!” It would work splendidly as an ad for a bookstore (or maybe a PSA at the very least!).

Churchill’s story as narrated above is an example (albeit a mediocre one) of how crucial storytelling is to advertising. Without the storytelling elements Churchill’s story would be dull as dirt. Instead, through the deliberate and diligent integration of plot, structure, scene, aesthetics, characterisation and contextualisation (all elements of the storytelling skill set), the Churchill story leads the audience along a memorable and enjoyable road that ends with a strong take-home message.

Storytelling secret #1:
Story isn’t a synonym for storytelling!

Newsflash! Story and storytelling are two different (though symbiotically linked) things.

I cringe every time I hear creative veterans make this mistake (which is depressingly often). Our industry uses these words interchangeably. Because our industry doesn’t do its research. Because our industry is lazy. Bad industry.

Story is your creative idea. Storytelling is how you knit your idea, so that the idea makes its point as uniquely, enjoyably and memorably as possible. Story is the soul looking for a body to inhabit; storytelling is that body. Story is always idea, storytelling is always execution. And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise!

To forever internalise the difference between the two concepts, read The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (it will change your life; and you are welcome).

Storytelling secret #2: Get your head out of your a$$
Stop thinking about yourself. Stop it. Having your head up your own behind neither helps you, your creativity nor your client’s brand. Instead, spend your time thinking about the audience (and while we are ending bad habits, let’s also please stop insulting the audience by labelling them ‘consumers’, a word which means nothing creatively or practically). Think about what makes people tick, across economic realities.

Creatives are lucky to get paid to craft stories that will reach millions of people, so understand the weight of that opportunity! Give it the respect it deserves and empower yourself with your own research. This has nothing to do with the planning department and everything to do with being a good storyteller. Be genuinely interested in all the individuals you meet – they will endow you with the truth and inspiration you need to craft an idea and then tell its story.

You cannot convince anyone of anything unless you understand how he or she perceives the world. And you can’t see how they look at the world unless you stop looking at the world from your own myopic perspective. If you want to hone this skill (which you should want to do!) the book to read is The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell.


If Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates have taught us anything, it is that a great mentor invests so much in you that you become inspired to start investing in yourself. If you can help it, try and find yourself a boss that you are both impressed and terrified by. In the absence of such good fortune, visit your local bookstore and just read a damn book.


Storytelling secret #3: Become a brainiac
As a creative, you need to major in storytelling and minor in cognitive psychology. Storytelling is so important to advertising because stories are so important to the human mind. We dream in stories. We empathise through stories. We record our species’ history in the form of stories. Stories are not only the nectar of human experience; they are the brain’s favourite food. Neurologically speaking, the brain reacts in a physical way to stories. This is not airy-fairy stuff; humans are neurologically hardwired to understand and remember the world through stories. Good storytelling lights up the pleasure centres in our brains. And I don’t need to tell you that as humans we remember the things that give us pleasure. As a creative, your job is to try and get your brand to do that for the audience.

Cognitively speaking, great storytelling manipulates people into buying the moral of the story. We are more likely to listen to a message we don’t like if it is fed to us in the form of a well-told story. Most importantly, our attitudes, opinions, and beliefs change when confronted with a story told convincingly.

For a crash course on the inner workings of the mind read Self & Others by R. D. Laing, or Psychology of the Unconscious by Jung, or Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (ideally, read all three together and in consecutive doses).

Storytelling secret #4: Storytelling is about 360
The good storyteller’s job doesn’t end at the TVC. The lazy creative’s thinking does. Storytelling is media-sensitive. It worries about every single manifestation of the brand story across each medium. Storytelling is about telling the story in the best way possible, keeping in mind the capability of every medium, ensuring the story is told as potently in OOH, or POS, or digital, or radio as it was in the TVC.

I am sure industry veterans are rolling their eyes at this point because it’s sooo obvious. But if it is so obvious, how come no one is doing it right? (I’m looking at you, Sooper. Your OOH is harder to understand than Nietzsche. And like Nietzsche, the meaning seems to change every time I look at it.)

Storytelling secret #5: Learn from the masters
The biggest secret of all is: stand on the shoulders of giants. I have been blessed to be able to learn storytelling from the best minds our industry has to offer. My current boss refuses to listen to my idea unless I can articulate it in less than 10 words. He chastises me for what he calls “wasting my words” – and rightly so, because for a storyteller words are the most precious, most essential currency; we have to use that currency to its best impact.

If Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates have taught us anything, it is that a great mentor invests so much in you that you become inspired to start investing in yourself. If you can help it, try and find yourself a boss that you are both impressed and terrified by. In the absence of such good fortune, visit your local bookstore and just read a damn book.

Ella Hussain is Creative Director/ Creative Producer at Slingshot. ella@slingshotpk.com