ONE Incredibly Dramatic Way to Create Winning Content

The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned in to watch drama. ~ David Mamet
It’s the drama stupid.
Mamet has won a Pulitzer and been nominated for an Oscar and a Tony, so he should know. And really, so should we.  Because if you can’t tell it, you can’t sell it.
So why, then, do we persist in overwhelming folks with information – data, graphs, charts, statistics? There’s actual science that tells us why this doesn’t work.

A persistent myth holds that there are data people and there are story people.  Actually, not so much. A recent article by Jonathan Gottschall, Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon, says science backs up the long-held belief that story is the most powerful means of communicating a message. Actually, science proved this three decades ago.
We’re all story people. In 1980, Richard Nisbett and two fellow psychologists conducted a study  to see if a single, vivid story (i.e., a very small sample) would more powerfully affect test subjects than authoritative data on the same topic. As Paul Slovic and his colleagues would find two decades later, in a famous experiment about “the identifiable victim effect,” narrative beat the numbers every time. In that study, those who received a fact-based appeal from Save the Children donated $1.14. Those who read a story about an individual child in need donated an average of $2.38, more than twice as much.
And combining a story with data doesn’t improve results. The same 2007 study found combining only yielded $ 1.43. Why?  The researchers called this the “drop in the bucket effect”.  People were moved by the individual child’s story.  Then, when they read the numbers, they just felt overwhelmed by the scope of the problem. So they gave less.
We’re all overwhelmed with information. Robert Bruce, copywriter for Copyblogger, provocatively notes in How to Captivate Your Audience with Story:

 The Information Age is coming to a close. It is crumbling around the ancient foundation of the human desperation for meaningful story, unadorned truth, and compelling drama that holds a mirror to life… Information is impotent to reach the hearts and minds of those who can use your idea, product, or service.

But a story?  Now that’s a horse of a different color. Peter Guber, known for multiple entrepreneurial successes (including film making), has often relied on the power of story to engage, win over and sell.  In his book, Tell to Win, he instructs us on how to move beyond soulless data, PowerPoints and figure-laden spreadsheets towards emotionally connecting stories.  What’s significant here is his emphasis on purposeful storythat leads us toward a clear call to action.

How do we create a purposeful story that ignites people emotionally and connects them to our cause? Jean Luc Godard said “a good story has a beginning, middle and end.” Think about this for a moment.  It’s so simple.  Yet I’m constantly amazed by how often I read stories that only have a beginning and middle.  I learn about someone in desperate need; then never find out what happened to them.  Or I read stories with a beginning and end, but no middle.  There’s just not enough detail to make me care about this person.
A good story has the following elements, as we’re reminded in 7 Timeless Business Lessons You Can Learn from Hollywood Screenplays:
  1. Hook – What is unique, special, compelling about what you do and have to say? It’s imperative to capture your audience’s attention first and fast.
  2. Plot – The “meat” (or entrée-size vegetarian meal).
  3. Characters – The folks (or critters, or trees, or open spaces) we need to care about
  4. Action – What is happening that makes a difference. It’s best to build your action around what’s in it for your constituents.
  5. Dialogue –Genuine connection, considering the voice of our constituents. We must sound authentic.
  6. Genre – Speaking to your niche (don’t write a mystery for folks who want romance novels; don’t spin a tale about an aspect of your business that very few folks care about; pay attention to what constituents support as it generally won’t be everything you do).
  7. Rewrite – Run it by a few folks to see what they think; then tweak or start over. Even the best writers sometimes miss the mark.

Now, back to psychology for a moment. Melanie Green and Tom Brock have seriously studied persuasion and write about it in Persuasion: Psychological Insights and Perspectives. Among their findings is the fact that when we enter into a story world our thinking is altered.  We’re more receptive. We’re not reading looking for faults.  When we read factual accounts, we’ve got our guard up. As a result, as Gottschall neatly sums up: “fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.” And certainly philanthropic research validates the fact that giving is ruled by the heart, not the head. 

We have it within our power to change the world – one drama at a time. Create dramas and invite your readers to join with you to achieve your goals, and theirs.
Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal ~ David Mamet
 Note: I receive no remuneration for pointing you to particular authors or books.  I just share what I like. Please feel free to share what you like as well!




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  1. Tom Ahern says:

    Brilliant summary of the whole “story v. stats” thing, Claire. Thank you.


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