Stories, Spin and the Loss of Intellect

I was watching this advertisement for Adidas in the cinema the other day and reflected on how pervasive storytelling has become. Here’s an ad that says practically nothing about the product but is clearly aimed at re-personalising a brand. To do it, Adidas corporate needed to have recognised the power of narrative.

And then I thought a number of things (not sure they were what Adidas wanted me to think):

1. Storytelling is becoming more pervasively recognised in corporate culture, as a spectrum of folks from the pragmatic Anecdote guys all the way to Dr “Cure-All” Denning keep reminding us.

2. This is probably because the world is more complex and we (the audiences in the markets or the audiences in the companies) crave simpler frames for looking at this complexity – stories are extremely powerful ways of making complexity comprehensible while maintaining its richness

3. Over-enthusiasm for story can have bad effects – when it is allied with a distaste for thinking things through analytically and critically, story becomes less of a sensemaking device and more of a spin-device. Two weeks ago I visited the House of Terror in Budapest, the former secret police headquarters where thousands of Hungarians were tortured and killed by both Nazis and Soviet-advised Communists. The building is full of the stories of survivors reflected from every wall on video screens (it was one of the most depressing afternoons of my life). But behind all of those stories and of the half-century of social apparatus they reflected were the bigger spin stories of Fascism and Communism, stories that subverted reason, diversity and even the right to think.

4. We may not have such a proliferation of vicious, simplistic regimes to deal with now (though they are still around, and they are still capable of flourishing again), but we have the same intellectual laziness in our societies and our organisations, the same willingness to relax and switch off our minds for a good tale. In a newscast from the Republican convention the other week, I saw one delegate rave about Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin: “She spoke to us in simple words we could understand” in an obvious jab at the “intellectual” Barack Obama. Clarity of communication is wonderful, but wanting to be spoonfed easy messages that fit a cartoon-character story is dangerous.

And then the movie started.

1 Comment so far


Nice post. And nice ad(idas). With re. to #3, I’ve always worried about stories evoking emotions that do not necessarily stop at making us realize the truth about something but make us “over interpret” things. What I mean is that we might get carried away! It may lend wings to our imagination while blocking our objectivity. Is that wrong? Not all the time...! What it means to me is that we need to make a choice in terms of what ‘knowledge’ can be dressed up as a story and what cannot.

I hope I am wrong but I am afraid it is a bit too late to change the corporate culture. Thanks to information overload, we can’t seem to be able to read anything complex now. We do prefer to be spoon-fed simple stories...!

Posted on September 19, 2008 at 05:36 PM | Comment permalink

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