It’s quite possible that there isn’t a job in writing that Lisa Cron hasn’t had. She’s worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as a literary agent at Angela Rinaldi, as a producer at Showtime and CourtTV, as a story consultant for Warner Bros and the William Morris Agency, and, since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Her 2012 book Wired for Story (which we reviewed here) explored the connections between story and our brains that neuroscience is identifying. We appreciate Ms. Cron sitting down with us for this wide-ranging discussion about writing, story, neuroscience, advertising and everything in between.
One of the things that makes Wired for Story so interesting is the way you were able to bring together storytelling, neuroscience, psychology, even a bit of anthropology. So many strands seamlessly interconnected. But where did you start? With “why do stories survive?” and go from there? Or did you start with the neuroscience and make the connection to stories? Or said another way, how did you craft the story of “Wired for Story”
Here’s how it happened: I started with something very simple, and if you break it down, it actually does follow the course of an unintentional science experiment.
For decades, in one form or another, my job was to read manuscripts, screenplays, memoirs, to see whether they worked or not, and – this is the key thing – if not, why not.
And as with discoveries in science – especially neuroscience – what I learned the most from were manuscripts that didn’t work at all. Just as many of the major advances in our understanding of how the brain processes information came from studying people with brain injuries, beginning with Phineas Gage, I learned what we expect of a story from the stories that didn’t work at all.
We all know when a would-be story sucks, but most of us then get to bail. We put the book down, flip the channel, or walk out of the movie. But I couldn’t do that. I had to read all the way through, and then pinpoint what, exactly, went wrong.
We sympathize. The number of books we’ve diligently read to the end so we could discuss them in totality, when, in truth, we suspected the writers themselves had checked out about halfway through, is legion.
The sad thing is that often the writers didn’t check out. They were earnestly trying, more’s the pity. And the really interesting thing was that although each writer made their own spectacular surface mistakes, the underlying errors were almost always the same. And, even more surprisingly, those mistakes had very little to do with what writers are taught matters most — the ability to “write well” — and everything to do with the ability to tell a story.
Why? Because they had no idea what a story actually is. As Flannery O’Connor so astutely noted, “most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” Most writers were clueless, and it wasn’t their fault. It was because writing is taught wrong everywhere.
Writers – and the general public for that matter – are taught to believe that it’s all about beautiful writing, being a wordsmith, and having a whole lot of creativity. So you learn to write really well, unleash your creativity, and Voila! A story appears. Couldn’t be further from the truth.
You sound suspiciously/refreshingly like Claude C. Hopkins…
Never heard of him, but that’s what Google is for.
And The Agency Review…
Anyway, I quickly realized that what grabs us, what holds us, and what we come for isn’t beautiful writing, per se – in fact, beautiful writing without a story is insanely boring. Nor do we come for the surface plot, which can be just as uninvolving, regardless how many things blow up. What we come to story for is a “ride” inside the protagonist, as he or she navigates a very difficult problem, so we can experience what something really feels like, rather than what it looks like on the surface. In other words: Story is not about the plot, story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. Story is internal, not external. What comes first, and what matters most, is the internal problem the protagonist has to solve in order to get something that they want – something that they’ve wanted long before the plot kicks into gear. The plot is constructed to force them to go after it, and to have to overcome a long-standing internal issue, misbelief, or misunderstanding in order to actually have a shot at it.
Can you see how this applies to advertising? In other words: Advertising is about how to overcome the customer’s internal resistance (their own personal reason why) they’re not already buying said product.
But I digress. For a long time I felt that my approach to story was hardwired, but it wasn’t until I began reading neuroscience, that I realized it wasn’t a metaphor, it was fact. Talk about an “aha” moment – it was spectacular!
Of course, the truth is that there have been so many recent neuroscience breakthroughs about the way we process information that I was in the right place at the right time. And it’s all fascinating – to me, both story and neuroscience have the exact same goal: to find out how people are processing information. In other words: what makes them tick. Because that’s what story reveals: The “why” behind “what” people do.
So you’d been thinking these things for a long time and then began reading neuroscience and suddenly said “Oh, THAT’s why.” But what made you start reading neuroscience? It’s fascinating and been getting considerably more popular attention than in the past, but still, I don’t see a lot of it on the NYT bestseller lists on a weekly basis. Was it something for work, or did you decide to dig into that area on your own?
I did it on my own. It had nothing to do with work. I know this is my own personal point of view (after all, we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are), but I have a hard time understanding why everyone isn’t fascinated by neuroscience. It’s uncovering why we do the things we do, how we make sense of our world and ourselves, and what it means to be human. And like a good story, it’s always breaking our expectations, and giving us fresh insight into our actions. What’s more fascinating than that?
It’s the exact same reason we’ve always turned to story – to find out what makes people tick. One of the things I love about neuroscience is that so often it proves what writers always knew. Writers were the first neuroscientists, except then it was seen as metaphor. For instance, take the notion that the pen is mightier than the sword. Science has revealed that the power of words to shape (and, in a rather terrifying way, create) the reality we see goes far beyond anything we’ve ever imagined.
We read Wired for Story with an eye to how it applies to advertising and marketing, encouraged by the growing talk about the importance of “brand stories” in the industry press and culture. But what’s your perspective? Do you think the principles you identify are applicable in a meaningful way to advertising, or do you think advertising is just – as it often has in the past – superficially co-opting a trend, restricted by the demands of a medium whose primary goal is to sell a product, not tell a story?
Yes, I think that the principles I identify are not only applicable in a meaningful way to advertising, I believe that they’re the only thing that actually makes advertising effective. Story isn’t “one” way to communicate, it’s the only way. We think in story – that is, in narrative. It’s how we make sense of everything. Each of us is the protagonist in our life, and we evaluate everything – whether physical, social or conceptual – based on one thing: how will this affect me personally, given my very specific agenda. What’s more, all stories are a call to action.
You mention that there is the notion out there that advertising is, “restricted by the demands of a medium whose primary goal is to sell a product, not tell a story.” This reflects a fundamental – and very, very common – misunderstanding of how people make decisions about, well, everything. To wit: that the way we make decisions is based on a “rational” analysis of any given situation or set of facts. Not so. We make decisions based on one thing: how that “rational” analysis makes us feel. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, “We’re not thinking machines that feel, we’re feeling machines that think.” And that means we need to know what those facts, that situation, means to us, personally (read: how it will affect our lives). That’s exactly what story does, it puts general, abstract “objective” facts into a context that allows us to experience them, subjectively. In other words: story spins facts into feeling
All true, but we’re not saying that that’s how we make decisions. We’re saying that those are the guidelines for advertising – ultimately it all comes down to trying to get someone to buy something. In fact, we believe, as you do, that Hamilton was right that “Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion”. In other words, that we are capable of reason, but not governed by it.
I knew what you meant, and totally agree. I was talking about the fact that those old advertising guidelines are based on the false assumption that it’s possible to sell a product by stating facts, rather than telling a story. Read: by making general statements of fact, rather than showing how said product would help the customer become their most authentic (and best) self.
But I don’t agree with what Hamilton said – here’s why: It’s pejorative. It sounds as if “reason” is something separate (and superior to) emotion. And that being “reasonable” is the highest good, something that emotion undermines. And, most importantly, it equates “passion,” and by extension emotion, with impulse. In other words, we’re at the mercy of our “unreasonable, emotional” impulses. I don’t believe that for a minute. The problem in our culture is that we’ve been taught to believe that emotion itself inherently leads to impulsive or “emotional” (read: irrational) actions that we’re bound to regret. Thus, when making important decisions – or any decisions – we’re told that the goal is to “keep emotion at bay,” lest it cloud our judgment. But the truth is, emotion IS how we make judgments. Being calm is an emotion. A sense of fairness is an emotion. Even stoicism is an emotion. They’re all feelings. And without feeling, we couldn’t make a single decision – this isn’t a metaphor, it’s a biological fact.
The real question is: why are we so afraid of emotion? And the answer again comes back to feeling. It’s because we want to feel in control, like we’re the master of our own ship. It makes us feel safe and secure. So because strong emotion frightens us, and makes us feel out-of-control, we vilify all emotion.
The truth is, being “emotional” or “impulsive” is simply one very narrow pitch of emotion. Emotion itself guides our every moment, and is simply our barometer of meaning, i.e.: how will this fact, action, concept, idea affect me, personally, given my specific agenda. Either affect me physically, as in, “If I use this brand of toothpaste, I’ll have whiter teeth”, or affect how I feel about myself, as in, “If I volunteer at a battered women’s shelter, I’ll feel like I’ve helped someone, and am a good person”. Both end up making us feel like our most authentic, best self. Not to mention, telegraphs that to our tribe.
However, just because feeling – emotion – lets us know what things mean to us, and by extension what we could do about it, it doesn’t mean that we do the first thing we feel like doing. For instance, I might feel like eating a chocolate cake at midnight. Am I going to do it? I hope not. So I’m going to pause and think about it: I’m trying to eat healthy, so eating a whole chocolate cake at midnight, even if it is 90% dark chocolate, probably isn’t my best bet. Plus, I baked that cake for my daughter’s birthday tomorrow, and if she wakes up to a dirty plate in the sink, it won’t go over well. So, I guess I won’t eat the cake. Why? Reason? Hell no! Because if I did it would make me feel bad. It all comes back to how we feel. Emotion is our hardwired yardstick for meaning. That’s why facts need to be spun into story – so we can feel the affects of those “objective” facts on our very subjective lives.
Which is exactly the tightrope advertisers must walk – whether they know it or not….
Precisely. If your primary goal is to sell a product, the only way to do that is to communicate to people why using said product will enhance their subjective lives. This, in turn, means two things:
- Advertisers have to be able to see their product through the eyes of their perspective customers. Which means that their ads must be focused on their customers, rather than on their product. That is: the story they want to tell is one that shows how using the product in question will solve problems that their customers already have; and/or will fit into and enhance their self-image. The place where advertisers go wrong is when they focus on how great their product is in and of itself (which, of course, also reflects their own subjective view of just how great it is). The customer doesn’t care about the product itself, they care about how the product, belief or action will affect them, in their lives. Big difference.
Or said another way, customers don’t buy a shovel, they buy a hole…
- Coming back to story: the only way we really hear what someone else is saying, especially when they’re trying to change our mind about something, is when we don’t feel that they’re telling us what to do, how to feel, or why something is fabulous. The only way we really hear it is when we’re allowed to experience it ourselves, whether out here in the analog world, or vicariously, through story. Remember: the brain doesn’t learn by thinking about things, the brain learns by experiencing them. And story is the language of experience – whether yours, someone else’s or that of a fictional characters.
I completely agree with you about how all this needs to work, which leads me to a question about media. And with the caveat that this may all turn a bit too “inside baseball”, but since traditional media is more about a monologue, and social media is ostensibly more about conversation, wouldn’t that make vehicles like twitter, facebook, and the rest, better designed for story?
Great question, and the answer is: nope. I actually think traditional media can do just as good a job, if not a better job. Why? Because – if you know your audience well enough – you have the power to create an entire narrative that instantly captivates them, triggering the dopamine surge of curiosity that keeps them hooked, regardless the incessant outside stimuli we’re constantly bombarded with. And, even better, it leaves them transformed – they now see the world slightly differently. We’re affected by stories every minute of every day, whether we know it or not.
While I completely agree with you about the importance and value of story and storytelling, it would seem to me that one of the key components of “story” is “time” – in other words, you literally need time for most stories to unwrap and develop. And yet we live in an era whose defining feature is how increasingly fragmented and shortened media and attention span are. So how do you resolve these two things? Or are they resolvable at all?
I deeply love this question, because it allows me to blast a major misconception: The notion that a story is long, and begins with something like, “once upon a time” goes from there. Not true! A story can be two words (think “death panel”).
Here’s the thing: in our world, the concept of story is tacitly mis-defined as:
- Stories are fiction – make believe – their purpose is to entertain us
- Stories long: Novels, Movies, TV shows, plays
But, in realty, story itself – which is what we’re talking about here – evolved long before there was written language, or even spoken language. Here’s the goal of story, in a nutshell: To take general facts and translate them into a very specific scenario, so we can personally experience the subjective effect they have on us, in light of our personal objectives. Period. That’s the goal. That’s why advertising gets it wrong SO often: advertisers and marketers want to tell us why their product is the best – and why would we care? What we care about is one thing: how will this affect ME, and help me be my most authentic self? Translation: make me feel good about myself, and go over well with my tribe.
Completely agree with you about how marketers fail by telling, in a sense, their story and not how they’re a part of the consumer’s story. But I disagree about length. “Death panels” isn’t a story. Nor, frankly, is the one my English teachers used to force upon me in grammar school, “Jesus wept”. They’re clever, but they lack the fuller context story demands. But that aside, look at twitter, at instagram, at Pinterest – the entries here are not stories, they’re not even sentences. They “clauses” – bits, pieces, elements of story. Story takes time – not necessarily the four hours to stage “Strange Interlude” but more than a pulse. So how do we tell stories in this world? Or, how are our brains parsing stories in this world?
Ah, but “death panels” is a story. Here’s why: it’s crafted to trigger a very specific narrative in the audience’s mind. That is, because the Right knew what their audience’s core beliefs were, they knew that when said audience heard the term “death panel” they’d picture a government bureaucrat callously denying their grandma her cancer treatment, putting her on an ice floe and pushing her out to sea to die, alone.
In other words, by knowing what context your audience will plug your “two word story” into – thus creating their own personal story that embraces, personifies and proves your point – you can leave them thinking they’ve come to the very conclusion you were deftly steering them to, all on their own.
The bigger point is: we think in narrative – in story. And the more you know about your audience’s core beliefs, the more you know the stories they’re already telling themselves, and the more you can find a way to plug into those stories.
For reasons that we could discuss at length elsewhere, there seems to be a bias in the business world away from the tools of creativity – a real difficulty for business people to understand their value, see how they apply and even if they do, know how to apply them effectively. “Wired for Story” makes a good case for the business reasons for quality creative – but what do you think (or what have you found) is the most convincing and compelling fact or idea that actually converts business people to this argument?
Here’s something that might surprise you: I don’t like the word “creative.” Why? Because it’s so fuzzy-conceptual-abstract-and-thus-meaningless by itself. Here’s my definition of creative: finding a new way to solve a problem (usually an old problem, because most of ‘em are). The reason people shy away from the term creative is because it’s so vague that it’s hard to quantify, at all, or even pin down.
Point being everything gets its meaning based on the context in which it appears– especially creativity. Creativity without context is like a two-pound jar of peanut butter, without the jar. It gets all over everything, makes a big fat mess, and is really hard to clean up.
I don’t think that unleashed creativity, in and of itself, is what makes great writers, or great storytellers, or great marketers. What makes for good storytellers is the ability to do two things:
- Genuinely put themselves into someone else’s skin, and so see the world through their eyes. The key thing to keep in mind here is that there is no “objective reality” that we’ve all somehow agreed on. Rather, the meaning we read into everything is determined by one thing, and one thing only: what our past experience has taught us that those things mean. Thus there’s more to getting inside someone else’s head than simply viewing – “objectively” – their world. It’s being able to understand how they break down their world, what matters to them – and most importantly WHY – and thus ferret out what may be holding them back from embracing your product or idea. It’s often very different from what you think it is. It’s only then that you can create a story – a narrative – that will open their eyes.
- The understanding that the key to story – and to life – is not “rational” thought, but emotion. That is, it’s not what someone “thinks” about something that spurs their behavior, it’s how they feel about it. Which, of course, defines what things mean to us. As Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert said, “Indeed feelings don’t just matter, feelings are what mattering means.”
Understanding those two things FIRST, then allows marketers – and writers – to genuinely tap into their creativity, to figure out how to then translate their message (i.e. their point) into a story that will allow their customer (readers) to not only hear it, but feel it. And to act on it. Again, all stories are a call to action. It’s not a choice, it’s hardwired into the architecture of the brain.
And that brings us back to the question at hand: what would convert business people to this view? How about the fact that without it, you’re wasting your time. No matter how well crafted your pitch, or your argument as to why your product is the best, it won’t penetrate. Kinda like those multi-vitamins that come in capsules that don’t dissolve. So even though you swallow it, the nutrients just pass right through you. Story is what allows us to absorb the point.
I agree, but the fact remains that this is a seismic shift in the way marketers think. They’re trained almost from birth that they must identify what makes them different and hammer that home as much as their meager media budgets will allow. In that context, “persuasion” and “story” are not measureable in any real sense – when was someone persuaded? The first time they encountered the message? The eighth? What part of the story worked on them? Did they get the whole story? Or had they already flipped the channel to the other show they were watching – while they were texting and updating their statuses on facebook and uploading something to instagram? Thus, converting them to this idea is a brutally uphill struggle. But you must experience this difficulty all the time – your TedX talk is an effort to convince and convert, right?
Ah, but what IS measurable? Is the effect of commercials and ads that simply identify how their product “different” from other similar products something that they’ve been able to measure? Do they know how many times a person has to see any ad to buy said product? It seems to me that this question could be applied equally to any attempt at persuasion.
Oh, don’t get me started on the things advertisers tell themselves about measuring success…
Yep, because we all want to feel that we can gauge the affect of what we do, the better to succeed in the future. That’s not pejorative or a negative, it’s human nature. Speaking of which, what about the “rule of threes”? While I’ve heard that it’s been debunked, it works on me. I try to pay attention to why I tune into new things, and often it works that way: The first time I hear about something, I notice it. The second time, I remember I’ve heard of it before, and maybe there’s something to it. The third time, I feel almost as if the word is vetting it, and it’s time to see what they’re talking about. Which, for me, is almost always a book, cable TV show or person to follow on online.
As for the question: what “part” of the story works on people, the answer is: all of it. Provided it’s grabbed us, starting with the first sentence, the first image. How? By surprising us. Surprise gets our attention by defying our expectations. We’re wired to immediately start figuring out what’s actually going on, the better to gauge whether we’re about to get whacked or kissed.
That’s exactly how a story grabs the brain’s attention: by instantly letting us know that all is not as it seems.
Once you’re hooked, you’re there. Everything else fades. That isn’t a metaphor, it’s a biological fact. That feeling of engagement, it’s not arbitrary, ephemeral or pleasure for pleasure’s sake. It’s not even the point. It’s the biological lure, the hook that paralyzes us, so we can experience the world of the story (even if the story is only 5 seconds long). Your mind can’t wander, because it’s been anesthetized.
In other words – when an effective story grabs us, we’re helpless – lost in the world of the story. And those gazillion bits of data being flung at us from all directions? We’ve literally tuned it out.
Stories do seduce us, and we have no choice but to surrender. Explain things to us and our analytical brain kicks in. Its goal is to resist change at all costs by challenging every single thing it hears.
Story instantly silences that critical inner voice by allowing us to experience what those facts will mean to us, personally. When it comes to advertising, facts are the “what” – what your product is, what it does. Story shows us the “why” – why the facts matter — not in general, but why they matter to us, specifically.
And finally, yes, that’s exactly what my TEDx Talk is about, and the idea I’m hoping to spread.
What’s next? How does the idea of story evolve? Is it simply a tool that we now re-learn how to use, or does it change and mutate based on cultural and social trends and technology? Or is story more of a cyclical tool – one whose value and importance ebbs and flows as the culture morphs over time? Or are the next steps applying it to areas of our lives that we hadn’t thought of as being relevant to its qualities?
The idea of story doesn’t evolve. Why? Because it’s not an idea, it’s hardwired into the brain. It’s not something we “invented,” the same way we didn’t “invent” the fact that blood circulates through the body. It’s a biological survival mechanism, and it’s what allowed us to survive. How? By allowing us to envision the future, so we could plan for the thing that from time immemorial till now still scares us most: the unknown, the unexpected. Without story all we’d have is this moment right now, and I don’t care what Eckert Tolle says, always being in the “Now” is a really bad idea. Because then we couldn’t learn from experience, or anticipate the future consequences of what’s happening in “the now.” Talk about history repeating itself, we wouldn’t know enough to run from stealthy lions, or that Uncle Milt goes berserk if you put cream in his coffee.
There is so much more to it than this, and no time to go into it here. Point being: story is not a cyclical tool, it’s THE tool.
The only thing that might evolve is how we view story. To be very clear: that means jettisoning our old notion of what story is and of how we make sense of things, and learning what it is that’s actually motivating us.
Okay, but on the one hand, if this is how our brains work – and have worked for eons – then how did we lose our understanding of it? Why is this idea that story is how we’re programmed coming as such a shock to us? And on the other hand, does knowing this is how our brains work actually change the way they interpret story? In other words, does knowing how the trick is done affect our perception of the trick itself, and thus demand something new to accomplish the same wonder?
The answer is, we never had a conscious understanding of it, per se, the same way we didn’t “understand” that our blood circulated throughout our body, or how why we need to breathe. Our body just does it. Luckily, we don’t have to understand why we need to breathe – or how we do it — in order to breathe. Nor do we need to know the mechanics of how our blood is circulated to have it circulate very nicely indeed.
What’s more, knowing how our brain works doesn’t change the way we interpret story, because the affect story has on us doesn’t occur on a conscious level. It’s biological; a story engages you, you get that dopamine rush, and you’re helpless. Here’s an analogy. We’re hardwired to crave sugar, fat and salt, because we need them to survive and they used to be quite rare. Now, with a McDonalds on every corner, that craving does us way more harm than good. We know that. We understand that. Sadly, that doesn’t do a damn thing when it comes to unwiring the craving, though, does it? Because it’s not something we have control over.
I couldn’t agree more. Let me give you another example: Take the TV show “24”. I started binge watching it, beginning with the very first episode, while its 8th season was airing. So I knew, absolutely and without a doubt, that Jack Bauer was going to survive every single episode I was watching. And yet, watching every episode, I was on the edge of my seat – heart pounding, palms sweating, yelling at the TV for Jack to look out, there’s a bomb, a sniper, a snarling dog, there’s a speeding car! Didn’t matter what I logically knew – I was lost in the world of the story that was unfolding on the screen.
The point is, story is not a trick, it’s a biological survival mechanism.
You can read our review of Lisa’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here). Or you can reach out directly to Lisa here.
Illustration of Lisa Cron by the brilliant Mike Caplanis