This isn’t going to be what you think.
Now, we’ve all seen ‘Up’, right? It’s the Disney/Pixar movie about the old man who loses his wife, then looks set to lose his house, till he launches a million balloons and floats of in that very house on a mission to go on the grand voyage that he and his beloved never got to go on. It’s a great film, everyone likes Up – it’s got an 8.2/10 score on IMDB, putting it at number 113 on the top films of all-time. Up is a story to which most viewers have some level of emotional attachment – that first fifteen minutes is possibly one of the best examples of effective, human, storytelling ever captured on film, and it’s all done with zero dialogue, you just see the events play out. It’s classic cinema, but it’s also the ultimate example of how when we have an emotional anchor tying us to the heart of a story, that all the other details start to matter a lot less.
So, (and stop reading if you’ve never seen Up and don’t want to me to ruin it for you) after that first 15-20 minutes, we’re emotionally tied to the outcome of Up. We want Mr Fredricksen to come out of this okay, because his life story is so relatable and true to life. He’s had to deal with losing the only person he ever loved, the one person he needed, and now he’s tied to the house they had together, the memories he keeps. We, as the audience, want more than anything for Mr. Fredricksen to win after that montage sequence, because that’s what we want for ourselves – it’d be terrible to think there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for him, for us. But then Up takes a turn for the less logical.
Mr. Fredricksen ties about a million balloons to his house and floats it. I can go with that, it links back to his former life selling balloons to kids and his only motivation now is to take his wife on one last adventure in the home they made. But then he finds Russell on his porch. How did Russell end up on his porch? For one, Russell was at his house the previous day, so he must’ve come back the next morning to continue his search for the Snipe – okay, I can go with that. But then he also must’ve seen the guys from the home come to the front door and that didn’t deter him at all. Okay, stretching. Russell then, when the house starts lifting off the ground, must have either jumped onto the porch, or not got off the porch, depending on where he was at, and held on for dear life as it took off. There’s no logical reason for this. But we forgive this element because, well, who cares? The dude’s flying a house levitated by balloons, logic’s already largely been thrown out the window.
But more than that, we don’t care because we’re already emotionally invested in the outcome. We’ve bought into Mr. Fredricksen’s story, and it’ll take a hell of a lot to get us to stop caring about him now – details be damned.
In this sense, Up gets away with a heap of stroyline quirks and plot holes that other films wouldn’t have a chance of overcoming. How is it possible that the adventurer, Charles Muntz, is still alive and still chasing that bird when he was already an old man when Mr. Fredricksen was a boy. This is somewhat explained at the beginning, when they say Paradise Falls is ‘a land lost in time’, but is it, in fact, lost in time? Have they somehow travelled back in time? How was Muntz able to develop technology to translate dogs in an isolated forest? Why isn’t Mr. Fredricksen more amazed about this? Why isn’t Muntz happy to see another human, why isn’t he asking how the hell he gets back – he must have family or something? Why isn’t Muntz more surprised that some old man has flown a house to the falls? Does anyone care about any of this?
No. And that’s the triumph of Up. Up highlights the absolute power of human connection, of finding the human heart of a story, as an effective storytelling practise. If you can find the human heart to a story, you can make it about anything – wars happening in a galaxy far, far away, love stories happening on a doomed cruise liner in the time before it crashes. Human connection, linking with your audience and making your story relatable to them, is more important than virtually any other element. Because we connect through stories, we relate. It’s stories that bind us together and make us feel less alone in the world.
Up is the ultimate example of this. Don’t believe me? Imagine Up without that opening montage, with no context for his relationship, other than him talking to his now absent partner every now and then. And while gaps in logic are always less of an issue in kids films, they’re almost totally irrelevant in Up. Because all we want is for Mr. Fredricksen to get that house onto that clifftop, just like his wife always wanted. That emotional drive is powerful, the heart of the story is what everything else refers back to. If you can find your story’s heart, you’re on the path to building an emotionally resonant, and connective, piece.
I read an interview with author Arnold Zable recently in which he discussed his work in championing causes through his writing, notably asylum seekers. Zable talked about the power of storytelling in such efforts, saying that ‘story is a very beautiful way to lead people somewhere else’. Zable noted that more than statistics and facts, telling the real story, revealing the true, human experience behind issues is the only real way to cut through and make people take notice.
Zable’s words definitely rang true to me – we’re constantly berated by numbers and figures behind issues like asylum seekers or climate change, to the point where their effectiveness is diminished. But a real story, of how a mother fled a war-torn land to save her children, that brings the issue home in a far more visceral and powerful way. You feel it, you respond to it. While data and figures are important, logical cues, the power of storytelling should not – and cannot – be underestimated.
The Rise of the Brand Journalist
This got me to thinking about how we’re discussing storytelling in content marketing. There’s a big focus on story at the moment, because emotional triggers are what drive social sharing. The ever increasing amount of people using social media leads to an equally increasing amount of brands looking to utilise social channels to reach their audience, and the best way to do that, to compel people to like and share your brand message, is through content. Storytelling has always been the strongest way to deliver a resonant message, but now, with the audience having more control than ever over their media inputs, compelling content is crucial. Shareable content. You need to give people a reason to like your brand, a reason to want to talk about your business or business message. People aren’t on social to be advertised to, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, they want to join in on the wider conversation. The more your content can form a part of that discussion, the more successful your brand will be at maximising social channels.
One thing I have noted, in seeing the growing emphasis on content and storytelling in marketing, is that the term ‘brand journalism’ has also grown in step. The pervading view is that all brands are now publishers in the modern digital landscape – the audience needs a reason to align with you, so you need to tell stories, and online platforms provide you with the means to do just that. This has seen an increasing number of businesses look to producing their own stories, their own angles on relevant discussions, and that, effectively, is brand journalism. But every time I see this term I question whether a brand journalist is what you really want.
The Power of Story
Definitely, journalists are accomplished writers who are able to communicate the facts of the story, and many of them are, at heart, storytellers who are passionate about finding the core of a piece and building an experience for the reader. But a lot of journalism, too, is facts and figures.
For instance, this was a piece in an Australian newspaper recently, looking at the tragic disappearance of Dane Kowalski:
This is solid news journalism, all the facts are there, all the detail. But compare that to this single post from a friend of Dane’s, who’d been doing all he could to locate him:
In two sentences, this post has captured far more emotion, delivered far more resonance, because this is something this person is living. The pain is raw, real – the story is more than a piece in the news section. Every story is – there’s more to a news item than the who, what, when and where – the why is the real story. The people living it are the real connectors. You can read over a set of facts like:
Yet none of those figures are as compelling as an actual story:
Nothing comes from no where. In every story, in everyone’s life, in every event, there’s a passion, a human heart at it’s core. That story is what people relate to, what people identify with, and ultimately, what people respond to. Given that, in many cases it may not be ‘brand journalists’ that you need, but ‘brand storytellers’, people who can uncover the true purpose and passion behind what you do.
A Human Story
Of course, many, if not most, journalists are driven by a passion to tell human stories, to share that core truth of a story in order to let the audience develop an informed opinion on the subject. But it always stands out to me when I see the term used. And a lot of the content that does get shared via social networks is facts and figures based, so it’s not to say that a news-style approach doesn’t work either, but I guess the point here is in understanding what gets shared, why people share content – it’s in understanding what stories resonate with audiences. Those are the real stories, the human side. A news story might be about a man’s company going bust, but that didn’t just happen. There’s a long trail of events that lead to that business collapsing, a story behind those details that would allow the reader to build a better understanding and emotional connection with the material – and this type of investigative journalism, based in true storytelling, is what’s most beneficial to building better discussion and understanding. Because people make judgements based on what they read. If they only have the basic details, their opinions will be established on those. But if they have all the information, then they can absorb it and make a judgement based on the whole picture.
The TV show Catfish is a great example – someone will be scamming someone else online by pretending to be someone they’re not – and it’s easy for us, as the viewers, to side with the victim, because they are the ones being lied to. But more often than not, the perpetrators themselves are just sad, or lonely, or lost and when you hear their side of the story, the right and wrong of the situation isn’t so clear. They’re all people, they all do things for their own reasons. Those reasons are powerful and add real insight. Those are the stories we need to share.
Not everyone wants to read the detail, not everyone will appreciate the story, but it’s important to understand what resonates, what style of storytelling works to reach people’s emotional triggers and subsequently generates discussion and community. Facts and figures and important, but why are they important? What do those numbers actually mean for the real people involved? Great storytelling reveals this, great journalism reveals this, but you need to recognise what you’re actually aiming for when establishing a content plan and working with writers and writing staff.