The power of stories
As part of my effort to prepare myself for my new day job with an engineering company, I’ve been reading the works of Henry Petroski, who seems to be the Stephen Jay Gould of engineering—a popularizer who interprets the profession for the rest of us.
As a marketer who believes in the power of stories, I was pleased to see this passage in Petroski’s book Remaking the World.
A recent survey of Duke University civil engineering alumni asked which of their college courses had proved to be most useful in their careers, and a significant number of respondents mentioned a sequence of history courses that was required in the 1950s.
The singling out of these courses after thirty or forty years was a notable anomaly among such predictable responses as Strength of Materials, Structural Analysis, and Steel Design. Since the questionnaire did not remind the alumni of which courses they had taken, or give them a list from which to choose, one cannot help concluding that these history courses had made a clear and lasting impression on at least some students…. The demands of a technical curriculum generally leave little time for telling war stories in the engineering classroom. Nevertheless, course evaluations have shown repeatedly that this exactly the experience that students crave and remember.
Students sit up and listen — as opposed to mechanically transcribing the blackboard into their notebooks — when a lecture dealing with solutions to the differential equations for a vibrating system is interrupted with stories of how the John Hancock Tower in Boston was retrofitted with tuned mass dampers to control its structural oscillations, or how wind-inducted motion of the Citicorp Building in New York is mitigated by a massive block of concrete connected by springs to one of its uppermost floors. Students become engaged when discussion of the morning’s news about a bridge collapse preempts the nitty-gritty of fracture mechanics that deals in abstractions for the sake of the mathematics.
Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard
Someone at Book Court in Brooklyn is obviously a fan of J.G. Ballard.
On my last visit there I saw several Ballard novels I’d never seen or heard of before, and was prompted to read the recently published dystopian story Kingdom Come.
On page 2, Ballard sets up the book with a flair and efficiency that convinces you immediately that the man knows what he’s doing.
Like many central Londoners, I felt vaguely uneasy whenever I left the inner city and approach the suburban outlands. But in fact I had spent my advertising career in an eager courtship of the suburbs. Far from the jittery, synapse-testing metropolis, the perimeter towns dozing against the protective shoulder of the M25 were virtually an invention of the advertising industry, or so account executives like myself liked to think. The suburbs, we would all believe to our last gasp, were defined by the products we sold them, by the brands and trademarks and logos that alone defined thier lives.
Yet somehow they resisted us, growing sleek and confident, the real centre of the nation, forever holding us at arm’s length. Gazing out at the placid sea of bricky gables, at the pleasant parks and school playgrounds, I felt a pang of resentment, the same pain I remembered when my wife kissed me fondly, waved a little shyly from the door of our Chelsea apartment, and walked out on me for good. Affection could reveal itself in the most heartless moments.
But I had a special reason for feeling uneasy—only a few weeks earlier, these amiable suburbs had sat up and snarled, then sprung forward to kill my father
Amazing Things Are Happening Here
Lady Sybil’s death from eclampsia on Downtown Abbey was very sad. But the medical story that really got to me last night only lasted a minute.
The series of video spots New York Presbyterian Hospital has been airing lately live up to the tagline “Amazing Things Are Happening Here.” In only 60 seconds, they illustrate what I believe are the three key elements of successful marketing: Story, Benefits, and Emotion. To which I might also add Authenticity.
If you can watch the stories of Dawn Flemming and Heather McNamara without tearing up, you should check your pulse.
The brand vs. the story
One of the pleasures (for me) of reading business books comes when the big shots agree with something you’ve been trying to communicate yourself. In this case, it’s Tom Peters on the difference between a company’s brand and its story.
The brand, says Peters, is “thought to be the apex of marketing achievement” but is “in fact subsidiary to ‘the story’.”
“Word games,” you say. “Of course the ‘brand,’ in effect, tells a story.” Yes, of course it does, but I’d argue that semantics do matter.
“Brand” has to some extent become a sterile concept, wildly overused and hence almost made meaningless, that has burned itself out or is in the process thereof ... When we say “brand,” we are likely to begin with a clinical analysis of the market, competition, etc. But a story is a story is a good yarn or potboiler or thriller or whatever—it connects and changes your worldview, or it doesn’t. To grossly oversimplify, by more or less erasing the word brand from your vocabulary and instead obsessing on “story-story-story,” stories that move mountains, stories that grab, stories that shock, you will, in my opinion, end up looking at the world in a different and more useful way.
Exactly. To which I would add that one key difference is that the brand is about who we are. The story is about what we can do for you. Which one will be the customer be more interested in?
What concerns me most about this poster for the TV series Justified is that Mr. Olyphant can’t possibly see what he’s shooting at.
Perhaps he should cut some peepholes into his hat brim.