I did an experiment a few years back, to test the relative traction and pass-on-ability of stories versus facts. What I did was take a trending topic on Twitter (Toyota recall) and classify 100 tweets about the story. Then I tracked whether these got retweeted or otherwise. To be honest it was a pretty low-rent experiment.
Anyway, the tweets fell into three categories.
1) Facts. Example: “One million Camry sedans may be affected by recall.”
2) Opinions. Example: “I never trusted Toyota. Buy American!”
3) Narratives (Explicit or Implied.) Example: “How many more recalls before Toyota actually apologises?”
Well, hardly any fact-based tweets got retweeted. I’d say as a form of social currency, mere facts are something of a FAIL.
A number of Opinions got retweeted – and my view is that the successes, here, were those opinions that tapped into the Zeitgeist. At the time the Toyota story ran headlong into another story: about the failure of Detroit. (This was before the rescue that Mitt Romney would not have approved. Gee, what’s happened to that guy? He’s vanished.)
The tweets that were easily most likely to get re-tweeted were the narratives. I characterised these as any tweet which had an explicit beginning, middle or end to some unfolding story. At the time the CEO of Toyota was obstinately refusing to apologise for the recall mess – and this storyline added a human interest dimension to the vehicle recall tale.
Stories have value because they provide a memorable coat hanger on which we can drape all kinds of facts, figures, opinions and sundry details. The structure of a story helps the audience locate and contextualise all kinds of information in one easily retrieved package. A story is the difference between buying an assortment or different garments, versus buying a complete business suit – pants, jacket, shirt and tie – where everything seems to fit and match.
My first job was to edit and later to write TV scripts, and I spent 8 years learning about different facets of storytelling – how to build suspense, how to capture interest and engagement, how to use quiet moments (puts on kettle, reads a postcard) to highlight (screech, screech, screech of violins) the sudden violence as the axe murderer smashes into the kitchen.
At the time I left TV (soaps and cop shows are, admittedly, pretty crappy in the end) I thought, well, that was a cul de sac.
But if there’s one core skill I have in market research it is the one based on what I learned in those 8 years. A good story, well-told, lives on in the memory of the audience. By contrast, as I saw in the tweet experiment, a deck of facts – without narrative structure – simply won’t get passed on and used.