Story Really Is that Important

In a recent interview with CBS News, President Obama reflected back on his first term by saying that the main mistake of his first few years was “getting the policy right” instead of “tell[ing] a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.”

Of course, his opponent for the upcoming presidential election, Mitt Romney, jumped on the statement (same link as above), publicly interpreting it to mean that the current president is more concerned about presenting an image than actually bettering the lives of his constituents. That’s to be expected, partly because “story” can be a slippery word that can mean both telling a lie and telling the truth. But mostly because it’s politics, which is a whole different kind of slippery.

The thing is, story really is that important, and that’s whether we’re talking leading a country or leading a market.

Throughout the history of the human race, story is always how we’ve communicated with each other, especially our biggest, most significant ideas. Our oldest surviving literature is stories, and we expect our modern storytellers (novelists, movie makers) to tell us something about life.

Heck, in an age when most of our biggest and best ideas are scientific ones, story is still important. After all, a hypothesis is nothing but a story, and science needs to be communicated just like anything else.

As to business, it has one goal: to sell. But if it concentrates all its efforts on the practical aspects of selling and forgets the story, then it won’t meet its full selling potential. The problem is, a great story can also sell a sub-par product, so we’re right to be somewhat suspicious of certain stories (but not story in general).

Still, the moral is, don’t neglect the story. Products and policy, even great products and policy, don’t sell themselves. As to what makes a great story, that’s a donkey/elephant of a different color.