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Information versus Story

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.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery