We’ve all heard that your brand and your platform are important to your success. But what if, after all of your platform and branding work, you are lost in a sea of competing messages?
That’s where Jonah Sachs enters, arguing that we are in the midst of the Story Wars. The Story Wars are raging around us. With so many messages bombarding us daily, fewer resonate and make it through the cacophony. What cuts through the noise? Stories. And the subtitle of his new book signals the importance of the story teller: Why those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the future.
Jonah Sachs is the co-founder and CEO of Free Range Studios, helping major brands create unforgettable marketing campaigns. He has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fast Company Magazine, CNN, and FOX News. He has created numerous viral marketing campaigns.
Jonah, let’s start there. You’ve created viral campaigns. Why is it that some campaigns take off and go viral and others fail to break through?
I’ve been exploring that exact question for 14 years. I couldn’t figure out the pattern at first. No rules seemed to universally apply. At times I thought it had to do with humor, shock value, beauty, good taglines. And then I discovered that one thing viral successes seem to share: They tell compelling stories that appear to give audiences the chance to see themselves as heroes in it. Instead of just talking about how great they are, brand campaigns that break through tend to talk about how great their audiences can be.
Is this where you developed the idea for Winning the Story Wars?
Yes. It was this search to understand what works in viral campaigning that led me to study mythology, neuroscience and psychology in the hopes of understanding what makes stories work. All that thinking eventually became my book.
You talk about the five sins of marketing: vanity, authority, insincerity, puffery and gimmickry. Would you touch on just one of them and give an example of how the sin destroys?
Let’s look at the sin of puffery. This is essentially speaking in the voice of god that worked so well when broadcast was the way we all communicated. When you’ve got a giant soapbox, you don’t need to make a personal connection with audiences, you can simply boom at them: “There’s never been a better time to go out and by a Cadillac. Hurry in today!” And because you had enough money to buy a spot on TV, people just assumed you had some authority to order them around. It made sense. Now that everyone can be heard and there are a million voices, audiences are listening to those who speak in a decidedly human voice. Rely on the voice of god and be ignored.
Let’s turn to the three tools you discuss that will help break through and create success in the story wars.
The first is: Be interesting. Jonah, this one is easier said than done! How do you create interesting messages?
Well, we’ve talked about some of the ways this is done: Talk about your audiences and adopt the human voice of a storyteller. But there are three tools discovered by evolutionary biologists that I love that allow us to be human within the structure of the human brain. I call these tools Freaks, Cheats and Familiars. Here’s how to use them:
Freaks — People don’t want to hear about your facts and figures. They want to see your ideas play out in the lives of characters they can relate to. And the most interesting characters? The kind that break our expectations: the freaks — the pauper who becomes the prince, the dropout who becomes the CEO, the chamber maid who marries the prince. Make your characters remarkable.
The Simple Story Test
Successful stories pass this test:
TANGIBLE. Makes people feel they can touch and see an idea.
RELATABLE. Characters carry values that we want to see rewarded or punished.
IMMERSIVE. People feel they have experienced things.
MEMORABLE. Rich scenes help us remember messages without effort.
EMOTIONAL. People feel an emotional engagement.
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