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Why do we gravitate to the best storytellers?

In his next instalment, Andy Orrick from Rattling Stick reflects on a lifetime of favourite stories, and what we can learn from them.

All of us have our own idea of what makes a great storyteller, but whatever our tastes, none of us tolerates average for long. Average story doesn’t connect with us emotionally therefore it’s devoid of its intrinsic power. It’s dead story. It’s just one image next to another on screen, just words on a page. Of course, if we repeat it enough - particularly in the context of advertising - we can bludgeon our audience into submission, but it doesn’t mean they’ll ever care – that’s just extracting a false confession. Sometimes a dead story fails by favouring style over content. Sometimes it pretends to ‘show’ but actually just ‘tells’. At best it’s the stuff we ignore, at worst it’s the stuff that makes us angry, stealing our precious time and giving us nothing in return. It’s not to say that all great story needs to be highbrow, far from it; it just needs to be the best version of what it’s trying to be. Soaps are a brilliant example of this, Coronation Street and Eastenders over Hollyoaks or Eldorado, or things like the everyman story platform X-Factor, over The Voice.

We can all map our life in great storytellers (you can see mine below), from the funny mate holding court, to office gossips, to inspirational speakers, to theatre, film, advertising, books and song, and if we’re all conscious of how much we crave the guidance and the emotional power of story these great tellers unlock, the question might be asked: why would we ever settle for poor storytellers and dead story, irrespective of the price point we’re working at?

Why would we rather trust a focus group than a great storyteller? The focus group will tell you what they want, the great storyteller, perhaps what they need. Why would we dumb down a story so much that it treats its audience like idiots, talking down to them rather than talking up? We are all sophisticated story creatures and easily smell a rat, particularly in the Golden Age of TV story we inhabit today. Why do we borrow the form of certain types of story for advertising purposes, like documentary, without borrowing the substance and editorial integrity too? We all hated advertorial once upon a time.

There’s no doubt that we would all agree with the statement ‘I would rather a poorly worded truth than a beautifully crafted lie’ but, for better or worse, it’s not how the world works. We are seduced by those who can unlock the emotional power of story. Since the dawn of time, the leaders of every society, every sector of society, are the best storytellers. Sometimes they use their power for good, sometimes for ill; but all of them have the power to turn us from atheists to believers, whatever it is they are trying to sell.

So here’s my life in great storytellers and why I gravitated to them:

ChildhoodAnt & Be, Bagpuss, The B.F.G, Charlotte’s Web, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, E.T., Star Wars. All of these stories taught me about family and friendship. It’s no great surprise that we gravitate to these types of stories at an age when life is about feeling secure and navigating the playground.

AdolescenceThe Outsider, Siddhartha, Betty Blue, Goodbye to Berlin, Catcher in the Rye, My Own Private Idaho. All of these stories spoke of my existential angst. Adolescence is a time of high narcissism as we try to find our individual selves, try to feel special but always within a group. It’s an awkward age!

Early AdulthoodAmerican Beauty, A Farewell to Arms, Schindler’s List, Brokeback Mountain, A Fine Balance, The Ice Storm, The End of the Affair. These stories all relate to me developing a more nuanced outlook on things. It’s the time we become less idealistic, more aware of injustice, of everything as shades of grey instead of black and white. It’s when we realise that life is hard with brief moments of happiness, not the other way around. But that’s fine. That’s life.

Middle(-ish) AgeCurb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire, Mad Men, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Storyville, Desert Island Discs, WTF. The mid-point in my story, the point of no return – fix it now or perhaps never. It’s a time when we look forward but also back. We ask ourselves: “who am I, what have I achieved, where am I going?” before we take our leap into the unknown (or into crisis!) Some of the stories here are about looking back on life with the value of hindsight (Blue is the Warmest Colour); others relate to the shedding of inhibition and the desire to make one’s mark; all of them in some way are about facing one’s own mortality.

Two Minute Task

  • What’s your life in great storytellers?
  • What can you learn from this to apply to your creative work?
  • What do both Andy’s list and your own tell you about different audiences and what they might be drawn to?

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