The Danger of Simple Stories
August 22nd | 2017

A story is a feeling.

Consider your favorite novel. Do you really remember the details? Probably not. It’s more likely that your memory feels a bit abstract—more like a hazy, oozy thought-feel than a log of people, places, and things. That’s because it’s the emotion of a story that most often leaves a mark.

We remember feelings because we’re more hard-wired to respond to emotion than facts. But emotions are messy things. We don’t really feel within simple, singular labels. Emotions aren’t bound by rigid definition—they’re more fluid. They tend to shape themselves, and the most impactful feelings are often discrete and novel: when you’re happy, it’s not just happiness you’re feeling, but maybe something like joy with an undercurrent of ever-present political anxiety.

The point is, the most powerful emotions are not the simplest or even the purest—they’re the most nuanced and cross-bred. It’s this mélange of emotion that’s the most powerful—that creates the most contemplation, the most stir. It’s these emotions and stories that we remember.

But the problem with many of the stories that brands tell is that they’re lies. They’re dumb-simple—typically self-serving, one-sided, and devoid of believable human feeling. They’re stories about unabashed joy. Uncomplicated potential. We see a lot of rosy smiles and toothy grins.

We live in a world where most brands scream nothing but BE HAPPY when, honest to God, shit’s more complicated than that.

And who wants to just be happy, anyway, when there’s a plethora of complicated-but-rewarding experiences out there?

On top of all that, brand and media trust continue to implode in the era of fake-everything. The emotional dishonesty inherent in a lot of the stories we tell isn’t helping.

I get that brands want to have simple messages to cut through the clutter and stand for something—but as we move toward brand systems that are more about human experiences and long-term relationships—and operate less like one-sided bullhorns—companies have to cater to the complicated emotional lives of people. We’re not single feelers, and we don’t respond to dumb-simple.

There are still examples of amazing storytelling out there. Fashion brand Vetements’ latest window display with Saks Fifth Avenue showcases mountainous piles of discarded apparel, a statement on the realities of fast fashion and mindless consumption. It’s a provocative way to promote a good message. Brands that aren’t afraid to showcase the messy and often complicated state of brand-human relationships say far more than ones that gloss over real emotion, and they create more trust and credibility while doing it.

Vetements window display. Photo by Hypebeast

It’s because they lean into our humanity.

Look at Super Deluxe, which exploded this year with content that’s often just as tongue-in-cheek as it is sincere and revealing. Series like "Cheap Thrills" and "Turnt Beauty" get laughs, but they also act as relevant cultural commentary, all while playing into specific interests in a way that people share and love. They don’t take themselves seriously—and you can tell they enjoy what they make. They display a passion for what’s new and a bit uncomfortable, and often bizarre. For many, this resonates. (For more good times, check on their recent viral hit repurposing Alex Jones ramblings as a Bon Iver song.)

And Adidas Originals continues to question the cultural idea of perfection in compelling, compact—and artful—ways that elevate the brand’s culture creds.

So, what’s the way forward? How do we get past the status quo of shallow, emotionless storytelling?

  1. Are you saying something new and honest, or are you hiding behind banal, watered-down language? If so, dig deeper. Culturally relevant novelty is currency. Furthermore, do you artfully play off of what’s happening in culture? Has your quest for a simple message resulted in your saying nothing at all?
  2. Show don't tell: yep, this is the oldest writing rule in the book. Expressive visuals and evocative language will almost always resonate more than functional narration. That’s because it’s hard to just “tell” someone the truth—the truth is informed by both feeling and fact.
  3. Implicit vs. explicit: This is related to showing and not telling—but consider how much implicit versus explicit storytelling you’re doing. Allow your audience to connect the dots and think, interpret, and imagine for themselves.
  4. Break the rigid storytelling constraints and best practices set by media platforms and the like. Acknowledge their technical or common-sense recommendations, but question anything that you feel will make your story less human. The most breakthrough storytelling finds a human way around an algorithm set by a media company. Platform best practices are set up to shine a spotlight on functional benefits, with increased views equating to increased recall of said benefits. Guess who that increased play benefits in the end? It works for the platform, but it’s not always the best thing for your brand.

So, the next time you aim to tell a dead-simple story, ask yourself if you’re being emotionally honest. It’s the best way to gain trust in a world where it’s harder than ever to know what to believe.