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Storytelling on Steroids: 10 stories that hijacked the cultural conversation

Storytelling on Steroids: 10 stories that hijacked the cultural conversation

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Storytelling on Steroids: 10 stories that hijacked the cultural conversation

256 pagine
4 ore
Jun 3, 2014


Storytelling is pop culture’s ‘weapon’ of choice to connect, engage and ultimately convince. Every TV ad a compelling movie? Every Facebook post a contagious piece of content? Every infographic a work of art? Yes, please. Tell me where to sign up! Right now, this very minute, a junior copywriter is adding “storyteller” to his Facebook profile. There is a gaming developer doing the same on LinkedIn. A PR agent is casually including “teller of stories” in his Twitter bio. Graphic designers, journalists, editors, broadcasters, coders, model makers, set designers, ginormous brands, ocean explorers, astronauts, schoolteachers, CEOs, marketing directors, creative consultants and trend watchers are peppering their websites, blogs and email signatures with the word “storytelling.” In Storytelling on Steroids, editor and adman John Weich finds out why. Where did all this storytelling come from? Why are so many professionals suddenly so eager to spread the storytelling gospel? And who blazed the trail for an Age of Storytelling in mainstream communication? In his compact, fast-moving book, Weich explores the iconic brands, cultural movements and social technologies that have contributed most to storytelling’s rise in mainstream creativity and communication. Along the way, he calls out countless pop culture darlings to make his case: Batman, Banksy, Tomb Raider, TED Talks, Radiohead, Jay-Z, BMW and New York Times infographics. He even raves about a powerful little campaign about the worst hotel in the world. What we’re experiencing isn’t a radical new movement but a storytelling renaissance, one fueled by addictive technologies, the abundance of choice and … you! You and the billion others engaged in the most massive and shamelessly personal storytelling experiment in the history of humankind: social media.
Jun 3, 2014

Informazioni sull'autore

John Weich is American and a great storyteller and public relations wizard! Currently Creator & Editorial Director at Monumental Propaganda and columnist at Wallpaper*

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Storytelling on Steroids - John Weich





Right now, this very minute, a junior copywriter is adding storyteller to his Facebook profile. There is a gaming developer doing the same on LinkedIn. A PR agent is casually including teller of stories in his Twitter bio. Graphic designers, journalists, editors, broadcasters, coders, model makers, set designers, ginormous brands, ocean explorers, astronauts, schoolteachers, CEOs, marketing directors, creative consultants and trend watchers are peppering their websites, blogs and email signatures with the word storytelling.

In this book, I explore why: Where did all this storytelling come from? Why are we suddenly so eager to spread the storytelling gospel? And who blazed the trail for an Age of Storytelling in mainstream communication?

But first, I’ll state the obvious: storytelling is nothing new. Despite its deceptively brand-new sheen, storytelling never went away. Storytelling has simply reemerged at the nexus of technology, social media and entertainment, rejuvenated by a communication industry dealing with an anarchic landscape of digital distractions, and reinvented for a public overwhelmed by information and constantly seeking out new impulses.

What we’re experiencing isn’t a radical new movement but a storytelling renaissance, one fueled by the social media and mobile gadgetry most of us use every hour of every day. These omniscient, addictive technologies have played a vital role in evolving the age-old idea of storytelling into something more truthful, more interactive, more immersive, more collaborative, more relevant and, almost always, more fun. As the president of LA content generator 42 Entertainment, Susan Bonds, told me, The things we talked about in the 1990s, like immersion and interactivity, simply weren’t technically possible.[1]

Yet while I credit the Internet and its social media prodigies for changing the way we think, read and remember, I purposely avoid overplaying their hand.[2] They are certainly the key instigators of the renaissance using the quintessential tools of this new kind of narrative. But I am more interested in how artists, admen, gamers, musicians, publishers, PR and other contemporary creatives have injected these tools into their trades.

Because once technology did, in Bonds’ words, make those things possible at the turn of the millennium, it unleashed a creative angst on a scale unprecedented since the advent of TV—all chaos, fear and paradigm shifting. Rob Schwartz, the global creative president of TBWA Worldwide, expressed the atmosphere of the early aughts like this: In 2001–2002 all these tech companies came to our agency showing us their wares and you sat there thinking, ‘Wait a minute, what are we going to do now? Hey, wait a minute; all these digital agencies are suddenly getting a big seat at the table.’ As a traditional agency we thought, ‘We’re fucked!’ But we weren’t fucked; we just didn’t have our game plan. We needed to find a new way to connect to our audience. Storytelling was one way to do that.[3]


Nifty gadgets and platforms are central to this story, but Storytelling on Steroids is more interested in exploring how developers, publishers, businesses and brands are embracing these quintessential technologies to persuade, convince, entice and enthrall. Yes, the gadgetry is cool, but they’re lifeless without us behind them. As great as platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Instragram are, they are because we use them. Actively…personally…obsessively. The result is that in the last decade and a half we’ve become willing participants in the most massive global storytelling experiment of all time. It shows no signs of abating anytime soon, which is a good thing—a very good thing.

It’s probably impossible to wax lyrical on the word hijack used in the subtitle of this book, but no other word embodies the speed and deftness with which professional creatives and communicators have applied storytelling to their own individual needs. Which is to say: their need to stand out, be different, be authentic. And who can blame them, really? We live in a society of choice, where picking out even a jar of peanut butter can incite a state of paralysis. It’s what the American psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice, and it’s most of all a paradox for the sellers, the people whose livelihoods rest on the number of video games, books, albums, magazines, tickets, gigs and products they push.[4] Just stroll down the aisle of any supermarket in America, France, Sao Paulo and Beijing and marvel at how many products and packaging and services openly copy or surreptitiously mimic each other.

For the average consumer the profusion of choice is mostly fascinating, the ultimate token of freedom. For the average creative or communicator it’s a bane of their existence. There are only so many ways to use the word innovative or healthy or game-changing—and even fewer ways to use these words honestly.

Story as the Great Differentiator. In an era where most things offer the same unique selling points (breakfast bars) or visceral experiences (video games), a good story is often the only thing that distinguishes the one from the other. To them, storytelling is a godsend. From artists to admen, game developers to architects, PR agents to savvy marketers, cultural tastemakers have adopted storytelling in a desperate frenzy to differentiate their wares in this economy of choice.

In this light, the storytelling renaissance was anything but an accident; it was a perfectly executed appropriation by the creative and communication industries that needed it most. They rather shamelessly jumped on the genre and, figuratively speaking, blew it up. What was once essentially the exclusive domain of artists, poets, priests, musicians, directors and writers now permeates pretty much every corner of mainstream creativity: fashion, advertising, gaming, packaging, journalism, PR, graphic design and technology. These professionals—and I certainly include myself amongst them—have transformed storytelling into a societal piece. It is everywhere! Storytelling is like graffiti or sounds of the city: you can ignore them until you can’t, and once you hone in on them, you can’t stop seeing or hearing them.

These days you encounter stories in the most unusual spaces: on pizza boxes and T-shirts, sewn into denim labels, wrapped inside premium chocolates and painted onto the bottom of hotel swimming pools. And it’s not just in branding. Peruse the list of the most popular podcasts in iTunes and you’ll find storytelling programs like This American Life and storytelling platforms like The Moth. Storytelling festivals are now chockablock, storytelling hotels on the rise and storytelling nights de rigueur in any self-respecting town. Columbia University now offers a Master of Science degree in Narrative Medicine,[5] and household names like CNN employ ‘directors of storytelling.’ And because we live in a society that dishes out themes, memes and movements in waves, other prestigious universities and companies will follow in their wake.

And just to be clear, I use the word hijack as a term of endearment. Storytelling isn’t just making commercial communication better, it’s also making the products and services and media and entertainment we use and consume better. Every advertisement a compelling movie? Every product label worthy of take-up in the permanent design collection at MOMA? Every brand infographic a work of art? Yes, please. Tell me where to sign up.


This book is my attempt to unravel the storytelling renaissance as pop culture’s ‘weapon’ of choice to connect, engage and—in the case of commercial creativity—ultimately convince. On the one hand, this book is a synthesis of the countless unorthodox ideas, unconventional theories and cultural movements I’ve come across over the years that hint at why storytelling has evolved from a fringe idea into one of the most powerful buzzwords in global branding today (Part 1: The Storytelling Chromosome[6]). On the other hand, it is a showcase of the most influential and groundbreaking campaigns, events, games, artworks and mind-blowing memes that helped bring storytelling to the forefront of the mass cultural conscience (Part 2: Hijacking the Cultural Conversation). Each of these sections fuel a compendium of storytelling tips that won’t instantaneously transform you into a great storyteller—which is impossible, because storytelling is a practiced craft—but will certainly help you understand it better and nudge you in the right direction (Part 3: A Compendium of Storytelling Learned).

Storytelling on Steroids is not designed to be the ‘last word’ on storytelling, if such a thing can exist. It is most of all the result of my own journey to understand storytelling better and explore who is doing it best. It offers in rat-a-tat fashion some of the insights and anecdotes I’ve picked up over the years as a journeyman editor, journalist and creative director in advertising, trend watching, brand content and PR. Some of the data and insights in this book are pretty mesmerizing, and quite a lot of it is simply quirky and entertaining and weird—fodder for cocktail prattle. Much like storytelling itself, in fact. It is highly fragmented because there is no single source of information. I sample from the books, magazine articles, novels, blogs, podcasts, emails, speeches and conversations I’ve actively sought out or accidentally come across over the years. I give credit where credit is due. I also offer suggestions, but I promise you they are not the type of self-motivating tips today’s storytelling gurus are pitching to corporate bigwigs. I wouldn’t subject myself to that, so I won’t do it to you either.

If there is a single-minded purpose to this book it is this: Storytelling is the only thing that truly connects the seventeen-year-old Russian programming whiz to the ambitious barista in Delhi to the divorced mother-of-two window-dresser in LA. In a world still so sharply bifurcated by religion, status, biases, skill, ambition and language, storytelling is our truest hope of connectivity. We need only hear the words Once upon a time and we unconsciously synch up.[7] Storytelling is the lingua franca of human communication, the common denominator that intuitively bridges ideas, disciplines, race, caste, generations and cultures. And you know what? Writers, producers, directors, brands, admen and game developers know it. Which is why more than ever before they are exploiting it to largely positive effects.

Over the years I’ve discovered that you actually learn more by saying what you’re not, than by celebrating what you are. True to this idea, Storytelling on Steroids will not trace our current storytelling prowess to our Neanderthal ancestors and their campfire narrative ways. There are other books that do that, and do it well, such as Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal (and its nifty subtitle How Stories Make Us Human)[8] or Annette Simmons’ The Story Factor.[9] Books like these attempt to create a unified theory of storytelling supported by neuroscience and biology, which is fascinating for behaviorist die-hards but not so much for the typical pop culture junkie whose daily diet comprises sound bites and RSS feeds. Admittedly, I read this stuff for fun, but have come to realize over the years that most of my colleagues working on the frontline of creativity don’t. Instead, their approach to storytelling is guided more by intuition than by science, paying attention only to the information that supports their own campaigns, concepts and ideas. In a supersonic industry punctuated by impossible deadlines and project fees and non-billable hours, their inability or aversion to reading storytelling manuals is perfectly normal. It is perhaps my highest aim to reach precisely this type of creative—the one immersed in storytelling without even knowing it.

Similarly, this book is not designed to be a brand bible that exclusively documents the awesome storytelling prowess of Nike, Adidas, Apple and Red Bull, the demigods of brand storytelling. They certainly warrant our attention, but they’ve already gotten it. Jonah Sachs’s Winning the Story Wars[10] and Teressa Iezzi’s concise little gem The Idea Writers[11] are two recent books that offer up industry insights into the world of marketers and business communicators. Yet while sneaker makers and software giants have certainly played an impressive role in paving the way for storytelling on a mass scale—both through inspiring narrative and Big Advertising’s habit of robot repetition—they are not alone. The goal of this book is to broaden the scope of storytelling beyond branding by inviting art and publishing and gaming into the conversation, particularly because they are prolific kick-starters of cultural trends. So while BMW and Microsoft did make it into this book, so did the New York Times, The Dark Knight, Banksy, Radiohead and Jay-Z. These are just a few of the conscious decisions, campaigns and events that have helped galvanize storytelling into the consciousness of pop culture. Sure, they might not all call it storytelling—many prefer some loose variation thereof, i.e. brand narration, content curation, immersive entertainment—but the idea of storytelling runs through their veins and resonates in their work.[12]


Such an innocuous word, storytelling, but such a slippery one to pin down. When I began my research I quickly landed in a quagmire of semantics. Every single ‘storyteller’ I ran into and questioned was able to articulately rattle off a number of labyrinthine definitions of storytelling, definitions that suited his or her own profile and purposes. However, when I challenged them to define storytelling within a single tweet, the vast majority answered me with a rictus and the reply, Well, a story is a story.

Storytelling means different things to different people, which offers up a pretty serious obstacle to someone researching a book called Storytelling on Steroids, to say the least. Were I to try to satisfy everyone’s personal definition of storytelling, I would produce a work of epic and unmanageable proportions, which is the polar opposite of what I want to achieve with this book.

‘What exactly is storytelling?’ is a question easier asked than answered. But the quick of it is: a writer defines it differently than a director or a game developer, just as a child’s notion of story differs greatly from that of an adman. When it comes to storytelling, everyone brings their own biases and associations to the table. It’s impossible to summarize in an elevator pitch or a tweet. Wikipedia, that bastion of cloud knowledge, offers an explanation so multi-layered and vague that it’s probably best ignored entirely: Storytelling is the conveying of events in words, images, and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation, and to instill moral values.

Um, okay.

As noted above, most professional communicators don’t even make an attempt to define it. Storytelling is something they just know, something they can feel. Even the Hollywood habitués I know whose bookshelves are full of scriptwriting manuals are hard-wrought to produce an endearing definition. Sure, they are

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