Actually, I started my marketing career moving away from storytelling. In the mid 1990’s, I left a position in story development at an independent movie studio to take a more analytical job at an advertising agency. I wanted the opportunity to explore consumer behavior and construct models of how people think. Put another way, I wanted more precision in my work, rather than the subjectivity of Hollywood. Then I had an interesting experience.
In 1997, I eagerly attended my first AAAA advertising conference, which was held at a Miami Beach hotel. My boss allowed me to go on the trip on the condition that I take notes and critique every presentation. So, on the first day, I sat down among 500+ attendees and tried to absorb a barrage of PowerPoint presentations. There were charts, graphs, brand pyramids, brand wheels, Venn diagrams, etc. It was all very intelligently written and presented.
But I was struggling to keep up with my notes. By the third presentation, my hand was aching and my mind wandered. I started looking around the room and nearly everyone else was either playing with their cell phones or fighting the urge to sleep.
Then a young guy who was dressed like a production assistant, approached the stage and turned off the projector. I wondered if maybe they were having technical difficulties and we would have a break. But then the guy clipped on a microphone and introduced himself.
He was Douglas Rushkoff, the author of a book called Media Virus. He was the next speaker. He came down from the stage, walked into the audience and said, “I’m just going to talk with you.” I put down my pen as he started telling a story about MTV. And that one led to a story about the OJ Simpson trial. And that led to another fasincating story.
And all of these stories provided insights into the viral nature of ideas and the implications for advertisers. I couldn't wait to discuss the ideas with my boss. Then, thinking of my boss, I realized I hadn’t taken any notes.
So I glanced around to see what other people were writing down and what I saw stunned me: not one person was taking notes, or looking at their cell phones, or sleeping. Everyone's eyes were glued to Mr. Rushkoff.
Suddenly he was finished and the entire room erupted with its first standing ovation. The previous 45 minutes had vanished. I looked down at my notebook and it was blank.
After the presentation, I was again surprised. I was actually able to remember the main points of Rushkoff's talk. So I typed it up and explained it to my boss when I returned to the office. And to this day, his speech is the only thing I can still recall from the conference.
This experience awakened me to the fact that storytelling has tremendous power with people, even highly-rational, analytical decision-makers.