Transcript: That Story-Telling Episode
Story-telling is at the heart of how humans communicate with each other, yet businesses seem to have lost the art. Anthony ‘Tas’ Tasgal talks through how we can fix this, and why doing so will pay dividends.
You describe yourself as a man of many lanyards. And I wanted to dive into that before we talk about storytelling. Where does that little epithet come from?
I’ve got a sort of fairly eclectic background. So I started off as an ad agency account planner, roughly during the Napoleonic War. And did that for a while working with advertising agencies, clients, creative people, working in terms of market research, and insight, and all that sort of stuff. And I still have one foot in that world, but then I sort of left to go freelance. And since then, I spend a lot of my time doing training. A fair amount of my time doing consultancy, I do lecturing, written books, I do a bit of writing outside of work as well. So I describe myself as being quite diverse. But I have collected over the years, many, many lanyards in my study, which we can’t see at the moment. So I thought that was quite a reasonable metaphor for saying that I sort of, you know, work across different domains, don’t like being pinned down into one room.
Sure. There’s a sort of sort of golden thread across all the stuff that you you do with this kind of game, getting people to embrace storytelling. Do you think there was a moment where we ditched storytelling or was it kind of gradual process, and we’ve only just realised what we’ve lost in the fight to get it back?
I think it’s something that’s always been there. This partly goes back to my origin story, before I went into advertising, I was a classicist. I did Latin, Greek and ancient history. And anyone who knows me or reads my books knows, I’m still pretty much obsessed with the Greek myths and with language and etymology. So I spent many of my earlier formative years looking at myths, looking at language, looking at history, and then ended up working in advertising agencies for reasons which are too complicated, daft to explain. But I was quite baffled because I thought working in advertising, and certainly working with clients, working with creatives, that the sort of whole genre, whole culture, of storytelling will be quite prominent. And I was quite dismayed, really, because what I found was that, yes, creative people would create ads that were stories, that were myths. But the rest of us, including clients, were sort of slaves to this terribly dull, worthy, bulletpoint sort of way of communicating. And pretty much early on, I thought, well, “What’s, what’s going on here? When did we lose the art of communicating through stories?” Because, you know, in my books and writings and stuff, I talk about that. We are designed to share and take in information through storytelling.
So to answer your question, I think there was a sort of golden age for us all to share stories. I think what happened was, once business came around, once we started talking in a very professional way, once we started listening to jargon and management consultants, I think storytelling waned. So it’s been my own little personal quest, to use another story-telling term, to try and restore storytelling, to sort of business and marketing and sales, really.
A key part of your approach to storytelling is the so-called Golden Thread. It’s an idea that is sort of central to your views and your way of teaching about storytelling. Can you dive into it a bit more? And tell us how it how it works?
Yes! It comes through a number of different sort of themes from my life. So it started off again from my obsession with Greek mythology. So the golden thread originally comes from the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. So King Minos of Crete defeated the Athenians in battle and as tribute, he said, “You’ll send me seven young men and seven young women every year to Crete, and there they will be taken into the centre of the labyrinth, a fiendish maze devised by Daedalus the father of Icarus, and at the centre of the labyrinth is my son, the Minotaur, half man, half bull, and he will tear them all limb from limb!” And this happen for many years until there rose a hero I have to say called Theseus in Athens, who said “Enough of this! I will I will not allow any more young Athenian men and women to be slaughtered, I will go over and I will slay the Minotaur. So he goes to Crete meets King Minos, announces that he’s going to kill the Minotaur. But when he’s there, he also is introduced to King Minos’ daughter Ariadne. And as these things happen, Ariadne falls in love with Theseus, and Theseus with Ariadne. And she says to him, “Theseus, you know, no one has ever managed to find their way into the labyrinth. And even if they did, they would never be able to slay the Minotaur. But even if they did, they would never find their way out safely.” So she gives him a ball of thread, and some of the author’s authorities say golden ball of thread, and says, “Look, take this at the end at the beginning of the labyrinth, the outside and start unravelling it as you get into the centre so that when you’ve got to the centre and hopefully slaying the Minotaur, you’ll be able to trace your way back.” And I always loved that story.
And then, as I got into sort of training and speaking and writing, I thought “This sort of works, really, because the biggest problem that I see with communications, with presentations with my students, presentations or documents, is it’s sort of all over the place.” Somebody once said about history, “history is one damn fact after another.” And often our communications are one damn chart, one damn bullet point after another. So I always emphasise that you need to create what I call the Golden Thread, something that is tangible, that is logical, is an argument, a hypothesis, a point of view, and you stick with that rigidly. You make it very clear. You’re allowed your digression, but as long as the brain again can hold on to that thread, there’s a much better chance that people will understand what you’re trying to say and take it all in. It can be a story, can be a presentation, but you need some sort of thread. Because otherwise, the brain loses literally loses the thread. So I talk about that quite a lot. And I think it has applications in all sorts of areas. But yeah, it’s something that’s quite close to my quite close to my heart, the Golden Thread,
The statistic gets thrown a lot is that the human attention span is waning dramatically towards the goldfish level? And even below? I mean, I have read stories that that’s not really the case. But do you think people have heard that and gone, “oh, I need many bullet points. We can’t setup a narrative. Now we just got to hit them with a single punch of information.”
It’s a fascinating topic. I think that that study was done by Yahoo in Canada, and they proudly proclaimed according to their research, that officially human attention span was now lower than that of a goldfish. I think if Darwin was still alive he’d feel quite disappointed about that, really. But I think I think there’s two ways of looking at this. And again, I’ve written about this, because broadly speaking, you’ve got two ends of the spectrum here. You’ve got people who say, “Right, attention span has gone down to three or four seconds, everything on YouTube, everything on Instagram, everything has to be three or four seconds, otherwise people won’t pay attention.” And that tends to create a certain type of communication, you know, which is loud, which is shocking, which is startling, which is occasionally gratuitously annoying.
Then the other end of the spectrum, if you look at Netflix, if you look at a lot of books, I think the latest JK Rowling Cormoran Strike book is about 5 or 600 pages. There is an argument to say that actually, the other end of that spectrum is also quite busy. There are people bingeing on boxsets, on Netflix, people are buying and reading five or six, or 700 page books, I’ve just read David Mitchell’s book, Utopia Avenue. And again, that’s 700 pages. But I think it’s about the content. And if the content is interesting, and worthwhile and memorable and emotional, and all those sorts of words, people will actually be involved with it. So I don’t buy into this fact that attention span has got so short that everything can only be consumed in two, three second bites.
As soon as you mentioned Netflix, I was thinking of The Umbrella Academy that I’ve just finished watching. That’s what, 10 episodes in the latest series, an hour long each. If you said to me, “Do you want to watch a 10 hour long movie?” I’d say “Absolutely not.” But I’ll happily sit and watch three or four of those in a row. I want the ability to consume it in bites. There needs to be a middle ground, where you can consume it in the size chunks you want. And then understand that data and see what your audience actually wants to do.
Yeah, but I think that’s the beauty of it, because I worked in ad agencies, I spent a lot of time working with media people. And I still do. And I think media has always been slightly the sort of, you know, not the black sheep, but the slightly taciturn cousin sitting in the back of the room. But actually how we can see what we can see is incredibly important. And I think it should be segmented. Actually, I might give it a bit of language that I quite like from behavioural economics. Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice, talks about this spectrum of people, he calls, maximizers at one end, and satisficers at the other end. So a maximizer is somebody who wants the best of everything, and must make the most perfect decision. Otherwise, they get annoyed and frustrated. And my wife’s quite like that when it comes to buying things and booking holidays. I hope she’s not listening.
The other end of the spectrum is people he calls satisficers, which is a sort of portmanteau term for satisfactory and sufficient, and these people only want to make a decision, that’s good enough, they don’t want to make the best possible decision. They want to spend their time doing other things, but want to make a decision that’s 60-70%. So I think that’s the same with media consumption, I think people who are maximizers, if you like, want to consume everything immediately and want to have it all in one go. But those are satisficers, who, you know, love Umbrella Academy, or for me, it was Watchmen, or Game of Thrones or whatever. And I think people will consume things according to whether or not they’re maximizers and satisficers. But I don’t think that that insight has really been sufficiently paid attention to, I think there is a variety of ways in which people can consume. And as I say, again, back to previous question it’s certainly not true, that everyone just wants everything in, you know, tiny, little bite sized chunks.
So you could have one approach, take the one bit of content, and you produce that in a series of emails, in a podcast and a transcript and resource, you put it in all these different facets and people consume it as they want. But the other side of that is sort of the risk of content fatigue, that you’re putting up so much, that it just exhausts people. And trying to promote it and get it all attention is actually taking away from its effectiveness?
Yeah, I think I seem to be in a bit of a “both and” mode today. I think because I think there’s truth in both. And it does go back to my maximizer-satisficer thing. What I would say is, based on my experience as an ad agency planner over decades, there is a tendency sometimes to blitz people with content. Let me give you a bit of language that I like using, which is there’s a sort of opposition or polarity that I like talking about, which is, which is messaging versus massaging. And if you just give me a little moment or two to explain that. Makes a great t-shirt slogan, by the way if anyone’s interested. So messaging for me is when a client is telling people stuff, right. And it’s a bit like if you’re going on a date, and you say, “This is me, I’m brilliant. I’ve done all these wonderful things. I’ve written books, I’m incredibly handsome la la la.” And it’s showing off. And it’s messaging. And I don’t generally like the word messaging. I remember working with a client many years ago, when I was freelancing at Ogilvy, and they use the term “messaging architecture”. Now, if you are any of your listeners use the term “messaging architecture”, let me just apologise now. I’m not a big fan. Because that’s not how the brain works. Messaging architecture is, you know, it’s a software term. And that’s not how our brains work. So I think the idea that you just message people into submission in any sense, whether it’s emails, advertising, or going on a date, It’s a faulty way of communicating.
I prefer to use the word massaging. When you’re talking to people, you’re trying to massage their sense of self, you’re trying to make them feel good about who they are, or what they buy, or why they make decisions. And again, if anyone is looking to go on a date, I think that also that works in that sense, as well. So for me, one of the ways I answer that is to say, if all you do is message people relentlessly with content, which is Bang, bang, bang; fact, fact, fact; message, message message, however good that is, I suspect, it’s going to fail the test. If, however, you’re using an approach, which is more about massaging, which is about entertaining people, rewarding them, making them solve puzzles, that sort of approach, then I think you can probably produce more content. And there’s a better chance that people will actually engage with that content. That feels like another both and answer.
There was one other thing which I’ll throw in as well, which, isn’t based just on subjectivity, it’s based on behavioural economics, and in one area, in particular sort of neuroscience. What we know about the brain is that by and large, the brain is not just a sponge, it doesn’t absorb everything and keep everything. It’s a very misleading metaphor. It’s also not a computer, it doesn’t work in the same ways computers. So I have an expression which I’ve sort of come to fall upon over the years, which is “by serendipity”. I’m a big fan of serendipity. The first book was about storytelling, helpfully called The Storytelling Book. The second book is called The Inspiratorium, it’s about insight and inspiration, and I talk an awful lot about insight being about serendipity, about making serendipitous connections which create new ideas. And that’s how lots of insights happen. So this is a thing that I fell upon a while ago, when I was just typing an article about something. And because if you look at your keyboard, the letters n and m are next to each other, I’d actually tried to write attention span, but I ended up typing attention spam with an m. And I thought, “Well, hello, that works quite well, that’s quite a nice way of describing how the brain works.” So what I’ve now fallen upon saying quite a lot in my talks and stuff is to say “Is what you’re saying going to get through attention spam?” So the analogy is like your email, we like to think that I’m sending stuff now from my inbox into your inbox, from my head to your head. But I’m arguing because the brain filters out most of the stuff that it gets, the majority of things that I’m sending you or saying to you, or communicating with you, don’t go into your attention inbox, they go into your attention spam. So that’s part of my overall theory of this, how do you get through attention spam? So again, if it’s a story, if it’s emotional, if it’s massaging rather than messaging, I would argue there’s a better chance that what you say we’ll get through
If you’re comparing it to him to a spam filter, I guess what we’re talking about the rules and expectations the brain has some as well. I think that’s why there’s a thing in comedy that breaking expectations is what gets a laugh or what makes a joke funny.
Benign violation theory, yes. I’ll come back to humour and insight as well, because it’s I’ve just done a talk for ESMR. The European Society of Market Research Companies all of that humour and insight because they’re two of my favourite topics. But you’re right. I think in b2b as in b2c. And in case anyone asks me, in case you ask me I think there are far fewer differences in b2b to b2c than people like to admit sometimes, I think, person to person, human to human, whatever you whatever you want to call it. Yes, the decision making process, the decision making unit can be different. But the b2b process, I think, is as emotional, sometimes possibly more emotional than b2c. So you’re right. I mean, what you just elaborated, again, is, whatever you want to call it, I’ll use one of the big six emotions. And I’ll just use the word surprise.
For me, one of the key ways again, of getting through attention span of avoiding just messaging is to use the power of surprise. Surprise is there for an enormously important evolutionary reason. So all the emotions are there to make sure that we survive and thrive, we pass our genes on to the next generation in good Darwinian fashion. And they all have different roles, but surprise is there to say, “Okay, well, the stuff that’s happening around your senses, information you’re getting through your senses, etc. Here is something that is worthy of you paying attention, because it may affect your chances of survival or thriving.” So that is why surprise is so important. And I’m always amazed how little surprise is used. More in b2c communication, I think probably it’s fair to say, but even then, not that much, because the violation of expectation is something that is absolutely core to getting attention, attracting emotion, and certainly, something I’m interested in, in creating insight. And again, we can talk about it in a minute. Because, as you said, that whole thing about benign violation theory is how jokes work, how humour works. So again, we can talk about that in a minute as well, if you want.
I think it’s interesting that it’s one of the things that people probably they probably instinctively understand, but they couldn’t speak it or write it out. And if it’s if they’re going to use that to impact in their marketing, their messaging, it’s worth having them be able to understand what it is they implicitly know.
Yeah, I’ve written I’ve written the odd bit of comedy myself, and I’ve always been fascinated about the role of humour, and why humour is so important and integral to human beings, and yet we know so little about how it works. So it’s fortuitous you’ve asked me about humour. There are several theories, and you mentioned one of them, which is benign violation theory or incongruity theory; that you have set up, a second line and then something that comes in and completely shakes what you’ve seen. So, two fish in a tank, one says to the other ‘How do you drive this thing?’
In my new book, Incitations, I refer to, E.B. White, an American humorist, who says analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Not many people are interested, and the frog dies. So you have to be very careful analysing humour. But what I find interesting about humour and surprise and insight is they are all about subverting your expectations. They’re all about making you see things differently. For me, in terms of as an ad agency planner, and strategist and behavioural economist, I’m fascinated by how surprise reframing can make you see the same thing in different ways. I’m a huge film buff, and I often talk about the films of M. Knight Shyamalan, who some of you may know directed, for example, The Sixth Sense, “he was dead”, with Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, and his early films tended to end with a “Oh my!” You suddenly see everything differently. So for me, there’s something very similar there, in terms of humour, and movies, and insight, and also expectations, and cutting through and standing out as a piece of communication. So I think some of the best communication plays in that sort of area, it sort of gives you or takes you on a story, but then it subverts that and twists that. And that’s how your brain gets involved and engaged. So I’m really interested in how we can make communication use some of those techniques.
Now a quote, I picked up from one of our speakers at Gatorcon back in 2018 was Jimmy Page, “there are no original ideas left.” And this idea that it’s perfectly acceptable, or even a smart tactic, to look at what your competitors are doing and to be led by that. I wonder how you can kind of divide that up between, a little bit of a little bit of safety and a little bit of risk, or should you go whole hog for a risky strategy, because when it pays off, it will pay off in a big way.
I have a very long and troubled relationship with the word ‘risk’. I remember when I was an ad agency planner working in an agency called Euro RSCG. I was working for a man called Mark Winnick, and I was working on as a planner on Peugeot, and he was the Creative Director. And we had always have these conversations about risk, because you cannot say ‘risk’ to people, especially clients, because risk is one of those words that is loaded, and it’s very negative. Equally, you don’t really want to say, “Right, here’s something that’s safe”, because no one is going to buy something, if you just say it’s safe. So, I remember we used to use the word ‘brave’ or ‘bravery’ because at least that that has a slightly better massaging influence. So I think you’re right, if there’s a spectrum, which is risk at one end and safety, the other, I think the issue with safety is, if you are going to be safe and be conventional, don’t bother. You know, stay in bed. And I do this little exercise when I’m doing training. I did it this morning, so it’s fresh in my head. If I say to you, or any of your listeners, you know, describe to a typical car ad. Okay. So what would you see in a typical car, Richard?
What you’d see you see the car is probably racing along somewhere, it;s always going fast. It’s always a bit off the main road, a quiet curvy one, you’d usually find that you’ve probably you’re going into the corners like a Formula One driver.
Yeah, and often it’s shot from above, it’s like a Tuscan hillside. If there’s a driver, it’s probably going to be a man, if there’s a woman she’s either a passenger or just strangely at the side of the road looking elegant. Now, I do this all over the world. And we can do it with mobile phone ads, which for some reason have balloons in them. This is the problem is that what often happens in our communications, we are so in thrall to what is relevant to our brand or our market. So if it’s the car we must show the car looking lovely, we show the car cornering. We show people eating yoghurt, putting a spoon in and putting that spoon into their mouth. What happens is you become so enslaved to the conventions and assumptions of your particular market, b2b, b2c, whatever it is, is you end up doing exactly the same as everyone else who has the same service or the same benefit. And for me that’s one of the biggest traps the clients fall into and sometimes their agencies. So for me, if you’re going to do that and spend however, your budget, whatever your budget is, and whatever your media is, I would simply say don’t even bother, because I can tell you what will happen, which is that people will either ignore it, or they’ll get the brand wrong, or it will go into attention spam.
So you have to have a component, which is surprising, which is unexpected, and which does flout those conventions in some way. Now, clearly, you can go the other end of that spectrum and just put you know, talking frog in your ad. But then that loses completely on relevance. But the fact is that the biggest sin for me in all communication, I think probably, especially in b2b is this tendency to default to the conventions of that particular product or market or service. And I just came off doing some consulting with a tech product. And it’s they’ve done exactly the same thing. It’s all about spec. It’s all about numbers. It’s all about graphics. And I’ve just said, “Look, if this is what you’re going to do, don’t expect anyone to remember what you’re saying, what you’re doing.” So I think that can be another element that is very, very easy to fall into. And he has to be very, very aware before you start that process that you’re not going to just say what everyone else is saying.
We already we’ve talked about Led Zeppelin, we’ve talked about The Umbrella Academy, we’ve talked about a whole lot of stuff here. Given this kind of disregard for conventions, or traditional sources, do you think anyone can be creative? It seems like it’s one of those skills that you can compare to your car ad. if I say “Imagine a creative person”, you’ve instantly got in mind, who they are, what they look like, maybe what they liked doing at school or what their interests are. How do we break out of that and get everyone involved in storytelling?
First of all, by the way, you just mentioned Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin my middle son is a huge Zeppelin fan. So just on behalf of Zach, Kashmir, I still think is their best track, rather than Stairway to Heaven, or Whole Lot of Love, or Immigrant Song. So, yes, I as you can tell, I do like throwing in all sorts of stuff and art and science as well. And that’s part of my thing, in particular my second book and the new book, Incitations. I’m a great believer that we need to be more eclectic. Insight, and creativity are all about making new connections. My definition is, information is to be collected, but insight is to be connected.
So if we want people to be creative if we want them to become storytellers, first of all, they have to not spend all of their time just with their one company or product or service. This goes back to my previous pre-Led Zeppelin comment about becoming obsessed with market conventions. As a planner, you have one foot in your client’s world, but you have one foot outside. And that one foot outside is really important for creativity. Secondly, I will also say that creativity is all about a mindset. There are people who are called “creatives”, and I’ve never really particularly liked that because implies everyone else isn’t. But creativity is really about seeing something new and being original. And as you said a couple of moments ago, there’s a big argument in culture and literature, there’s nothing new, that all you’re doing is replaying the same stories that Virgil and Homer talked about, or the big seven stories, that storytelling theorists talk about. But actually, if you look back at, Virgil or Homer, and you look at a TV series like Dr. Foster, which was actually loosely based on the Greek tragedy Medea, it’s amazing how many variations you can come up without being completely original.
One of the stories in one of my books is a Charlie Kaufman, I’m a huge Charlie Kaufman film fan. I’m thinking of Ending Things on Netflix, and he did Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And he was interviewed about this. And he said, “When I was trying to write a film, I had this idea, which is two co-workers who have an affair. And I had another idea about having a portal into someone’s head. But both of those ideas were going nowhere until I put them together. And that became Being John Malkovich.” Mel Brooks said the same thing about The Producers, he had the idea about two producers who were scamming money off of old ladies who were gullible, and had another idea about what happens if you actually try to make a play that was so bad, it lost money, but the backers still kept that money. Put them together and he came up with The Producers.
So creativity is often about having a mindset which is looking out for new ideas and new connections. There’s a science writer, he’s sadly passed away now, called Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote lots of science essays in the States. And they’re always worth reading, because he’s a brilliant writer, as well as a scientist. And he talks about how we come up with new ideas and insights and stuff, and an expression he uses is “previously unapplied detail”. He says, if you want to try and come up with something, think about “previously unapplied detail”. So I work with companies and I say “Okay, why don’t you on your laptop individually, but also as a company have an intranet, which is called the PUD file or the PUD intranet. And what you do is anytime you’re just thinking about something or you pick up something or you think arts that’s interesting, Put that into your PUD file”. And then when you’re searching for an idea, go through your folder, and your unconscious will pick up something and at some point later, make a connection and go, “Oh, that’s odd…..” So I believe that sort of low-level creativity is something that we could all do. All of us, just with a little bit of nudging. And certainly, I think it’s something that we’re encouraged to do when we’re children. But then we’re discouraged as we get older and older. And I think that’s really sad and upsetting.
Right. I think that’s a really good place to leave things, that anyone can be creative. And they definitely should be. That it’s all about little ideas. There’s some useful tips about how you create that. So right everyone, go out and tell more stories. Tas, once again, thank you very much for being on the podcast.
Pleasure. It’s been great.