May 3

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

How To Tell a Great Story

Nat Torkington recently sent me a link to a fabulous posting by Seth Godin entitled How to tell a great story. If you got any value out of My Talk At Startup School, you should be sure to read Seth's article. It really resonated with me. At O'Reilly, we've had the privilege to help kick off or otherwise contribute to some great computer industry stories: the commercialization of the internet, open source software, Web 2.0, and the maker movement. And Seth's really summed up what those stories have in common:

  • Great stories are true.
  • Great stories make a promise.
  • Great stories are trusted.
  • Great stories are subtle.
  • Great stories happen fast.
  • Great stories don’t appeal to logic, but they often appeal to our senses.
  • Great stories are rarely aimed at everyone.
  • Great stories don’t contradict themselves.
  • Great stories agree with our world view.

(I struggled a bit with Seth's last point, because I think that great stories wake us up to ideas that haven't been part of our world view, but I think that there's some interesting truth to it as well. It ties in to what Kathy Sierra talks about a lot on her Creating Passionate Users blog: helping people to have the story be about them rather than about you. However, I'm not sure that I entirely agree. Great stories, like great poetry, create that flash of recognition, the moment in which you see something as if you've always known it to be true, but in fact, if we already know we know it, there's no spark. (For more on that idea, see Robert Bly's wonderful book, Leaping Poetry.))

If you care about marketing and branding, this is an article to read! (I was quite honored that Nat sent it to me with the subject line "Everything I've learned at O'Reilly summed up by Seth Godin.")

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Comments: 8

  seesunshine [05.03.06 02:37 PM]

That's indeed a great sum up. And great stories are passionate.

  Sam Penrose [05.03.06 04:59 PM]

The piece is from a special issue about the power of marketing. It appears to describe specifically great sales pitches, or maybe brand identities. It does not describe "stories" in the general sense of the term.

WRT "great stories are true:" there is the "truth" of compelling narrative as expressed here. Then there is the truth of critical inquiry: messy, contingent, not always easily expressed as narrative. I buy O'Reilly books for the second kind of truth. The first kind of "truth" often amounts to lies.

  Tim O'Reilly [05.03.06 08:07 PM]

Hmmm. I don't see that "the first kind of 'truth' often amounts to lies." A story resonates because it captures something real. Recently, at a talk I gave, someone said, "What do you say to the accusation that 'Web 2.0' is just marketing hype." And I answered, "It is marketing hype! But the best kind of marketing hype works because it's got a core of truth that people recognize."

Marketing and truth are not opposed. "Open source" was a powerful marketing story because it helped people see something they hadn't understood before. (See my essay, Remaking the Peer to Peer Meme, for an explanation. Also read Wallace Stevens' essays in the Necessary Angel, about the relationship of truth and art. And George Soros on "reflexive knowledge" (things that are neither true nor false in and of themselves but gain power only to the extent that people believe in them -- markets, politics, religion, currencies.)

  Sam Penrose [05.05.06 01:21 PM]

Thanks for the thoughtful reply; we mostly agree but emphasize different concerns. Regarding "marketing and truth are not opposed," consider Godin's full text:

A great story is true. Not necessarily because it's factual, but because it's consistent and authentic. Consumers are too good at sniffing out inconsistencies for a marketer to get away with a story that's just slapped on.
He means something specific by disowning factuality. Consider Ode #30's story on homeopathy as a potential defense against a flu pandemic. Note their use of historical evidence.

Regarding "a story captures something real": consider Nike's selling $20 shoes for $120 to people living on $12,000/yr because it has "captured" the real greatness of Michael Jordan with "Be like Mike." That storied achievement of marketing fits these maxims pretty well. The lie comes in the association of the product with the greatness.

Thanks also for the reading recommendations.

  Marketing Headhunter [05.06.06 09:13 PM]

I think Seth missed perhaps the most important point: Great stories are written in the "problem / agitate / solve" format. And they have an "arc" -- like a movie script. Their goal should be to create drama around the problem that the user solves with the product.

To get the idea, imagine your target buyer as "Will Rogers" and your product as "Trigger" -- his horse.

  adamsj [05.07.06 09:15 AM]

For an example of the "the first kind of 'truth' [which] often amounts to lies", consider the slogan "Remember the Maine!" That story was a suffliciently compelling narrative to take the United States into its first war of aggression, and it was a lie.

It did resonate because it captured something real, but the real something it captured was the emotions of the reader.

For another example, consider the early history of electrical power in the United States. Edison marketed briliiantly, with compelling stories, full of horror and FUD which, as we have now seen, amounted to lies.

Rather than give another example, let me suggest a work of fiction about belief, stories, and consequences: Earth Made of Glass, by John Barnes (do read A Million Open Doors first, if you haven't yet). He just now closed off that story with his most recent novel, The Armies of Memory, which I'm anxious to read, so this is a good time to pick these up. (The third in the series, The Merchants of Souls, is less wonderful, but still worthwhile.)

And since I'm spinning off on a tangent: Bly the critic leaves me cold, has ever since his ill-reasoned attack on James Dickey as a racist. (I don't care much for Bly's poetry, either, but that's neither here nor there, except to acknowledge my possible bias.) There's a wonderful short book by the great poet Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, which, like Hugo's poetry, I'd recommend to anyone interested in the subject.

And, oh heck, why not close by misusing Yeats?

The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

  vorkosigan1 [05.09.06 09:54 AM]

Re Great Stories Agree With Our World View--

Not exactly. If you look at the work that the folks at the Global Business Network (Dutch fellow, can't remember the name) have done on this, great stories are more like _scaffolding_. They build on what's already there and extend it into something new, so that learning can occur.

Otherwise you end up with Star Wars-a momentarily powerful experience that doesn't change anything.

  James [08.02.07 08:13 AM]

"And Seth's really summed up what those stories have in common:"

No, it looks like he has summed up what makes for really effective advertising. A really good story will kick you in the ass and make you see the world differently, and you if you're not a bit uncomfortable in the end then the story has probably wasted your time.

Feel-good fluff that simply confirms your biases has a place in the world, but please don't confuse it with the art of storytelling.

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