Who Understands Story Better: Writers or The Business World?

You know what? It isn’t even a contest. While writers are earnestly unleashing their creativity, embracing their truth and giving voice to their love of words, advertisers, branding firms and politicians are crafting stories that deftly shape our thinking, our image of ourselves, and of course, our buying habits. It’s a little scary, isn’t it? Which is not to say there aren’t writers who understand story to their bones, or ad campaigns fall gloriously flat, but the truth remains, the business world understands story, and how it works, way better than most writers.

Why? Because when marketers discovered that story is the most effective selling tool there is, they realized that to use it effectively, they had to figure out how, exactly, it works. They quickly tapped into the growing body of neurological research that proves we’re wired for story, then turned their focus to what we respond to in a story, and what a story needs to do to engage us.

In fact, there are many excellent books on the subject – Whoever Tells The Best Story Wins, The Elements of Persuasion, Seth Godin’s All Marketers Are Liars, (not to mention his stellar blog) to name a few.

The real question is: Why don’t writing books explore the same territory?

Could it be because they view writing as something separate from story itself? Or is it because they see writing as an art, so there’s something slightly unsavory about looking at story with such a mercenary eye? After all, unlike writers, a marketer’s first goal isn’t to entertain or enlighten, it’s to sell. It almost feels as if they’re defiling story by using it in such a manipulative way. And maybe some of them are. It reminds me of that great line from the original Bedazzled, when Peter Cook as the devil laments, “There was a time when I used to get lots of ideas. I thought up the Seven Deadly Sins in one afternoon. The only thing I've come up with recently is advertising.”

Yeah. Using story to convince us that Micky Ds is a slice of heaven right here on earth (this ad made me cry), or to vote for a candidate solely based on the fact that he’s the guy we’d like to have a beer with, isn’t such a good thing.

And hey, writers aren’t trying to manipulate us into buying anything (except, of course, their book). So, the thinking seems to go, there’s no need to deconstruct story the way the marketers do. Because writers are interested in story for is its own sake.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. Because the reader isn’t. As readers we’re wired to plumb every story for what we can learn from it. Which brings us back to what marketers know. Why are we wired for story? Because it’s how we make sense of the world. Story has helped us navigate our lives, in ways large and small, since the beginning of time. Story is how we got here – and was just as necessary as opposable thumbs, maybe more so. Which means whether the goal is to sell Big Macs or a new way of seeing the world, every story has an agenda, a point.

What’s mine? Embrace story first, then start writing.

What do you think? Have you found yourself responding to the stories in ads, even when they’re for something you’d never buy in a million years? What do advertisers know that writers don’t?