Can You Really Tell a Story Without a Narrative?

by Keith Nerdin

Storytelling is quite the buzzword these days. Shane Snow even predicted storytelling would be the #1 business skill of the next 5 years. I’ve become increasingly fascinated with storytelling over the last year and it seems to be popping up everywhere. But I’m not sure if it’s actually showing up more or if I’m just experiencing new car syndrome.

One area where the word storytelling is being thrown around incessantly, is in the world of web design and branding. It’s being used as frequently as clean, responsive, whitespace, and flat.

I must either be a complete storytelling nube or an accidental storytelling purist. I don’t recall taking time to sit down and form a position on storytelling; it just kind of happened. When I think of storytelling, I think of narratives. I still think about stories the way I did as a kid. I think about shared experiences and adventures—where stuff actually happens.

I remember my dad telling me about when he was a kid. Occasionally he’d go to work with his dad at the shipyards in Bremerton during World War II. He’d scurry in out of the cold rain and eagerly dart into these massive buildings. He loved the warmth and atmosphere there. Upon walking through the door, he was always met with the smell of warm oil emanating from the countless machines being use to make parts for Navy ships in the harbor outside. The floors were wood. But not like wood floors we’re familiar with today. The floors were built using large 2-inch by 10-inch timbers. The boards weren’t laid flat like planks. Millions of these large boards were stacked tightly on edge from one side of the the building to the other. They were lined up end-to-end down the length of the machine shop beyond where his young eyes could see. These buildings stretched further than the length of several football fields. In these shops my grandpa and scores of other metal workers meticulously crafted steel into whatever part was needed for the ships—parts that often had sharp edges and delicate shapes. By building the floor this way, when workers would inevitably drop something they were working on, it would land softly on the vertical edges of the wood floor without damaging the metal. Grandpa and his buddies would weld silver dollars to large nails and drive them deep into floors until it looked like someone had just dropped a silver dollar on the floor. They thought that was pretty funny. Or I think of the fantastical stories my siblings and I would make up in the dusty fort under the front porch of our old house in Moro, Oregon when I was a young boy. These are the things that come to my mind when I think of storytelling.

I don’t feel this kind of warmth and excitement when I think about how the color of a logo helps tell a brand’s story. I never get drawn into a description of a company’s product or service the same way I do an engaging story told around a campfire. Don’t get me wrong! I love branding, design, and business strategy. I think about how brands can better position themselves or communicate with prospects and clients in more compelling, interesting, and accurate ways as I fall asleep at night. It’s like solving a puzzle. It’s fun and I truly do love it. But for some reason, I’ve started cringing when I hear people say things like, “…helping brands tell their story better” or “I don’t know if that really adds to our story.”

Unless it employs the use of narrative, then maybe using the word storytelling is cheating. Maybe it’s just hijacking a popular buzzword and repurposing it to fit our needs. Having the right elements (i.e. – content, imagery, logos, icons, layout, font, etc.) on a page certainly combine to paint an overall picture. And to varying degrees, utilizing the right elements effectively will either succeed at portraying an accurate picture of a brand or they will fail. But does that constitute a story? Is there a plot, character, conflict, theme, and a setting? If so, are visitors to a site able to travel along with those characters as a story unfolds?

I haven’t developed a strong position around this yet. But I can’t help but imagine that most sites and brands could benefit significantly from utilizing a good old-fashioned narrative more often. The simple sharing of information and data, even when surrounded with good design, only tends to activate the language processing center of our brain. But when we share that same information using a narrative, not only does the language processing center of the brain remain lit up, but various corresponding cortexes of our brain light up as well! Earlier, when I mentioned the smell of hot oil in the narrative my dad shared with me, your sensory cortex lit up. And right now, when I tell you about how one day when I was mountain biking down an extremely steep hill and my back tire hit a root that popped the back of my bike up in the air and propelled me over my handlebars—launching me into a short freefall followed by an unenjoyably long stretch of rolling and bumping off rocks and trees, your motor cortex lit up. In other words, you felt and experienced some of the same feelings I felt. If I was to share this story with you in person, both of our cortexes would be lighting up at the exact same time! We’d be completely in sync—something that colors, shapes, text, and data will never have the power of accomplishing on their own without a narrative. To me, that’s the real power of storytelling.

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Keith Nerdin

I'm just a Hobo Entrepreneur.

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