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Telling a story about stories



I speak later today at The Exchange, an organization, sponsored by Nomacorc, that periodically gathers “to improve the marketing of wine by creating a forum for the sharing of ideas related to wine marketing.” The topic of today’s gathering, which is at Bardessono, in Yountville, is “Telling the Story.”

I’ve been amazed the last few months at how this meme of “storytelling” has invaded corporate America—not just the wine industry but everywhere. It’s grabbed the attention of marketing and communications departments and the budgeters who fund them, which means that CEOs and company presidents also are onboard. Never in my professional career has so much attention been paid to this aspect of companies; marketing used to be a sort of minor adjunct to sales, finance and product development. Now, it’s the tail that’s wagging the dog.

We shouldn’t wonder why. Doing business in America is more complicated than ever. The nation is a welter of different, competing points of view, and a company that’s selling things (products or services) has to figure out how to make itself attractive people who are utterly different from each other. But why the sudden popularity of “the story”?

Well, for one thing, it’s not sudden. Companies, through their advertising divisions, have been telling stories for years. They didn’t call them stories; they called them “messages,” but it was the same thing. When Camel cigarettes said, in the 1940s, that most doctors recommend their cigarette—and the ads showed a “doctor” happily puffing away—that told a story. The human brain has a talent for seeing patterns where in reality only scattered bits of data exist. We see a stain on a wall and all of a sudden it’s a witch or Julia Roberts. In the same way, companies today put out creative tidbits of information and hope that we, the recipients, will fill in the blanks by interpreting the story in a way that makes us more likely to be attracted to the product.

Anyhow, that’s as close as I can come to understanding this modern infatuation with “the story.” Here’s some of what I’ll tell the audience at The Exchange:

A good story is always about something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about a person: for example, I love books that explain plate tectonics. A good story is like a good wine: it has structure, tension, grip, an intriguing beginning and a long, satisfying finish. A good story can indeed have a formula: fiction writers like Steven King and John Grishom have been writing the same formula for years. That’s not to put them down: Shakespeare had a formula well-known to students of English literature. But a formula isn’t enough. One must know how to tell the story, which involves an intuitive sense of drama. (I say “drama” because even comedies are based on the dramatic conflicts between human beings or humans and their environment.) A good story also evokes feelings of compassion and empathy in the readers.

A good story has to be well-written. Many great stories have been mangled by writers who just didn’t know how to write. Sloppy writing, poor grammar and syntax, superfluous words and sentences all can kill a good story. I believe in Thoreau: Simplify, simplify!

If you think about it, every human interaction is a system of mutual story telling. Scientists have long speculated about what makes us “distinctly human,” different from all other animals. Some have said it’s our ability to laugh. Maybe it’s our ability to tell stories, and to listen to the stories of others. On the other hand, one of my Facebook friends once said—in reply to my question of why Gus sniffs lampposts and fire hydrants to much—that those repositories of canine scents are Facebook for dogs—that each scent contains a vast amount of information that only dogs can detect: the gender of a previous visitor, the dog’s age and so on. So maybe dogs, too, tell each other stories, not through the use of words (they can’t speak) but through chemical emissions. We know that ants communicate through chemicals their bodies emit. Maybe the essence of the Universe is that all its infinite parts are constantly telling their stories, from the quantum atoms to the biggest black holes. The Universe is a dazzling babble of stories.

  1. Steve, how about recommending your favorite books on plate tectonics? Mine is Rough Hewn Earth by Keith Heyer Mendahl (University of California Press).

  2. Bill, Magnitude 8!, and A Natural History of California.

  3. And by the same author I mentioned, Hard Road West is the story of the emigrant trails from the perspective of a geologist: how the ranges, basins, and rifts determined the successes or failures of the various routes. With the recent Napa shake, understanding tectonic theory is top of mind to me, and I am glad to hear that you have a similar focus. If we don’t start a movement it is San Andreas’s fault.

  4. Bob Henry says:


    On your wine travels through California, some day pay a visit to De Rose Winery:

    “Shaken or Stirred, This Winery Is a Big Hit With Seismologists” – Wall Street Journal


    ~~ Bob

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Consider reading this booklet:

    “All Marketers Are Liars” by Seth Godin

    Excerpt from executive summary:

    “The biggest lie that master marketer Seth Godin tells in ‘All Marketers Are Liars’ is the name of his book. He explains that all marketers are not, in fact, liars: They are merely storytellers. The liars, he writes, are the consumers who lie to themselves every day about what they wear, where they live, how they vote and what they do to work. Godin explains that successful marketers are just the providers of the stories that consumers choose to believe. A good story that satisfies customers is the source of a company’s growth and profit. What it takes to make it work, Godin writes, is a ‘complete dedication to and embrace of your story.’

    “Stories are necessary to help consumers deal with the deluge of information they face every day, Godin writes, and truly great stories ‘succeed because they are able to capture the imagination of large or important audiences.’ A great story, he adds, is true, makes a promise, is trusted, is subtle, happens fast, and often appeals to our senses. Great stories don’t contradict themselves, and they match our worldview by agreeing with what we already believe.”


    And who is Seth Godin?

    Excerpt from Advertising Age
    (November 26, 2007, Pages 3ff):

    “Senior Marketers Go for [Seth] Godin,
    Have Had Their Fill of ‘Long Tail’;
    Anderson Survey Shows Which Concepts, People Resonate With Elite Execs”


    By Beth Snyder Bulik
    Senior Writer

    . . . according to an elite group of marketing executives, members of the Marketing Executives Networking Group, recently surveyed by Anderson Analytics . . . Godin is their top marketing guru, followed at No. 2 by Apple’s Steve Jobs . . .

    A mix of typical marketing experts and more-business-oriented execs rounded out the top 10, in order: Peter Drucker, Warren Buffet, David Aaker, Tom Peters, Jim Collins, Jack Welch, Malcolm Gladwell, Al Ries and Phil Kotler. . . .

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