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Character-Driven Storytelling

May 21, 2010

News came last week that the original Law and Order television series is being cancelled. It no longer will be telling stories “ripped from the headlines.” The show, coined “The Mothership,”  spawned a number of other L&O series, and became a syndication juggernaut. It had quite a run tying Gunsmoke for the longest running television series in history (20 years).

Unfortunately, its once successful formula just doesn’t work today. Law and Order had been declining in the ratings for years, struggling to adapt to a changing media landscape geared more to right brain character-driven storytelling than left brain plot-driven storytelling.

Television programming–now more than ever–must create compelling characters and character relationships. The audience wants to get involved in character lives, whether it be scripted drama or reality television. Can you say, NCIS and Jersey Shore?

Even television advertising has had to adjust. Take Progressive Insurance. Years ago, it pushed its award-winning website that allowed for comparison shopping. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clip. But the ads were all about technology. They felt cold and distant. An actor on a set with green screen graphics behind him communicating the facts.

Next, they brought in a celebrity host, showing Progressive’s “office.” Still cold, although subtle humor is introduced.

Warming up, they evolved further with a “real life” situation. The voiceover at the end is now female.

Then they hit pay dirt. A mythical insurance store with a sassy hostess, Flo.

There are pages upon pages in Google search about these commercials and the character, Flo. They have hit a nerve. Progressive now successfully gets across its information through characters we get to know.

Character-driven storytelling. What are the implications for education and non-profits?

1. We’re essentially in the transformation business. Education and non-profits change the trajectory of lives. Tell those stories. It’s not that you shouldn’t communicate the facts. Just try representing them with real people. Use these stories to create moments that break up the communication of information in your publications.

Case in point: Take a look at the work of branding consultant and writer, Andrea Jarrell, for the Yale University Science and Engineering viewbook. Note how Andrea has personalized both students and faculty throughout the publication, how she used student thumbnails to break up the content, and how she creatively followed the paths of students from high school to Ph.D.

2. Use a storytelling voice. Way too many websites and alumni magazines report on how lives have been changed instead of telling stories. Shift from stiff journalistic writing to storytelling.

Case in point: Note story by writer, Joel Kilpatrick, for Vanguard University on alumnus Larry Mantle of Southern California Public Radio’s AirTalk with Larry Mantle.

3. Be real. Be lighthearted. Take your mission seriously, but not your institution. Show some personality. These will be the stories that students, alumni and donors will remember. And if done correctly, they’ll represent your brand culture.

Case in point: A wonderful series by Cal State Northridge called, Alter Egos. The first story is titled, The Flying Nurse (video by Krishna Narayanamurti).

In today’s media environment, it’s about people. The great news is that character-driven and mission-driven are made for each other. You don’t have to make up the stories!

UPDATE (June 7, 2010): Worth the read about pretense and stories: The Pleasures of Imagination.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2010 1:35 PM

    Rick: Very kind of you to include me in this smart post. I like the pivot from Progressive to institutions and nonprofits. It can be so much easier to figure out what to do when you see it in different industry.

    What’s been interesting for me to see is the evolution from institutional voice with no people stories or distant ones to lots of people stories to needing the institution itself to be a character and have a personality. That takes making the individual stories fit into a larger narrative, so they feel like an ensemble cast who together tell the institution’s story. I’ve been sort of fascinated by the fact that most successful shows no longer have one or two characters but ensembles — if even the lesser characters are compelling the show is always better. Does that make sense in the context of your thinking here? Thanks again!

  2. Rick Hardy permalink
    May 21, 2010 2:27 PM

    Andrea, thanks for your comment. You do such good work. It’s my pleasure to highlight it.

    Regarding your comment about ensembles: it does make sense. Ensemble casts have always been popular, but even more so today. We like drama, and the more relationships, the more drama. There’s just more to write about. Either the drama is more obvious, like Grey’s Anatomy, or it’s more complex in that the more the layers of the show are peeled away, the more complicated it gets, like The Good Wife.

    Linking that to institutional storytelling is a fascinating point. I think an institution gets its character in marketing communications by inductively telling individual stories that form a gestalt where the whole–the institution’s brand culture–is greater than the sum of those parts. I wrote recently about it and used UCLA’s :60 television commercial as an example of communicating brand culture:

    If you look at all the individual shots in that commercial, they’re all mini stories. Each one communicates something different. But they’re all tied to this brand culture at UCLA:

    At UCLA, no one keeps score on who you are. They just want to see what you do.

    I think it’s outstanding and it exemplifies your point.

  3. woychickdesign permalink
    June 2, 2010 1:38 PM

    Keen insights, Rick, nicely brought into focus through your TV show metaphor.

    I remember listening to a friend who had been to a mission in Africa. She noted how people spoke not of being “in a relationship,” but “in relation” … to each other, to nature, etc. A small but important distinction that underscores a human need for and interest in each other. Can you relate?

    • Rick Hardy permalink
      June 2, 2010 3:19 PM

      Interesting! “In relation” infers to me a stronger tie. As you said, we do have a human need for being in relation to others. It’s rather amazing to me that not all communicators and brands get that. Thanks for your comment!

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