My partner Jim and I disagree about very little, but over the years, we have debated the weight he is willing to grant to information in the conflict between information and story. At Character Camp, I have often heard him say—after defining the difference between information and story—“Information is great, if…” and then list the three conditions that must be true for information to be impactful and persuasive:
- The person listening must be in need of the information you are providing
- They must be looking for the information at the time they encounter it
- The information must be presented in a way that is actually useful
As the extremely intelligent, highly rational son of an engineer, Jim comes by his respect for information honestly. But when he lists his conditions, I usually resist by pointing out how seldom those conditions are met. To which Jim responds, if someone asks you for the price of your product and you answer with, “Let me tell you a story,” they will suspect that you are about to dish out some pungent BS. I then concede that point, but object that the case is so trivial as to constitute an exception that proves the rule.
Given this history, I was quite tickled to stumble across the following metaphor, in a book review in this week’s New Yorker:
History is not a science. Essentially, as A.J.P. Taylor said, it is “simply a form of story-telling.” It’s storytelling with facts. And the facts do not speak for themselves, and they are not just there for the taking. They are, as the English historian E. H. Carr put it, “like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use—these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.”
I find this true as I read history, which is an extreme case because good historians begin with curiosity and an honest intention to learn something about the human condition. It seems even more true in the context of journalism, entertainment and social conversation of all sorts, to say nothing of marketing.
I find myself more and more persuaded that, with respect to the human mind—because of the way the brain has evolved—nothing of any significance goes in unless it is mediated by story. Which is why a lot of marketing communication simply bounces off.
I’m sure Jim would appreciate it if you can share any examples of the value of pure information in marketing. And I would be grateful for any examples to the contrary—instances in which pure information is not useful until a story of some kind provides context, meaning and relevance.