Cannes Perspectives: The oldest profession

Want to live happily ever after? Learn to master the ancient art of storytelling - it's the future of this business.

Cannes Perspectives: The oldest profession

The oldest profession is, of course, storytelling. Ever since the first caveman or cavewoman stood up at the campfire 100,000 years ago, it has been mankind’s favourite recreational activity, up there with sex and shopping.

It also lies squarely at the centre of everything we do and everything we will be celebrating in our week at Cannes. As admen and adwomen, we are first and foremost storytellers.

Admittedly, a lot of people have been unaware of this. In business, where the bottom line trumps whimsy, it has been reason, facts, logic and rational discourse that have been most admired. Stories were for kids. Fun, but trivial entertainments. Your grandmother knew better, but who was listening to her?

All that may be about to change. Storytelling is undergoing a dramatic rehabilitation. With the advent of MRI brain scanners, the boffins are beginning to take a new look at this most ancient art, and what they are discovering is groundbreaking. Not only does it appear that the methods of the ancient storytellers are the most powerful and effective means of communication and persuasion, but there is now a growing body of scientific evidence to prove it.

If you put people in MRI brain scanners and take blood samples as they listen to stories, you discover something remarkable: in the grip of a good yarn, the brain floods with the hormone  oxytocin. This is the empathy hormone, which gets released when a mother breastfeeds her baby. Or when people make love. It indicates a deep emotional arousal that no pie chart or PowerPoint presentation can ever hope to achieve.

The implications are profound. Stories, it seems, are a part of our mental hardwiring. We use them to understand and make sense of the world. Man is the storytelling ape.

Once upon a time, this might just have been something of academic interest. But there has been a revolution in our landscape in recent years and we all know what it is. The rise of social media. Consumers now have more power in their click finger than the emperor Nero had in his thumb.

If you want ads to go viral, you need to tell a good story. You need to touch people’s hearts and fill them with big themes and big emotions. This not an option: it’s the new imperative.

The good news is that the hard work has all been done. The manual was written 10,000 years ago.
For millennia, the experts have been practising the craft, telling stories over and over again and, in doing so, they have distilled a commonly agreed grammar of story.

Stories invariably unfold within a vividly imagined world, one loaded with sensory information: sight, sound, smell, touch. As readers, we respond to this dream world in much the same way as the real world. Our pulses race, our hearts beat faster, we react with shock or surprise. This is the reason behind the oft-heard advice to "show, don’t tell": you make the reader feel it viscerally.

Those old storytellers also worked out how to stop your attention wandering. How to keep you hooked. Surprises, twists and turns, suspense… They keep you guessing. The reason Blofeld aims a laser at  James Bond’s "crown jewels" is to keep you glued to the screen.

'Stories allow messages to be smuggled behind the consumer’s defences'

It is curiosity that keeps you wanting more. This is the thread that draws the reader on through a tale and makes sure she doesn’t bail out early. Consider this first line to a novel by Ann Quin: "A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father." As soon as you read that line, a number of questions form in your mind. Who is this guy? Why did he change his name? Why did he want to kill his father? Did he succeed? Why the seaside town? Which seaside town? This in essence is the art of storytelling. Raising questions, and not answering them. It’s called delayed gratification.

For admen, the great thing about stories is that they enable us to smuggle our message inside the reader’s defences without being noticed. Like putting our message inside a Trojan horse. The horse is sugar-coated with charm and the reader doesn’t even notice she has been sold. And if we pursue a mission of  "pervasive creativity", we can make each office in our network a breeder of thoroughbred Trojan horses.

Paradoxically, this hidden power of storytelling is something we’ve always secretly known. To understand this, imagine you are going to be executed for a murder you didn’t commit. The electric chair awaits. What do you do? Do you give the jury a list of facts about the night in question and ask them to figure out whether you are innocent? No way. You hire a professional storyteller, called a lawyer, and he or she weaves the facts of the case into a spellbinding story.

If they’re not a very good storyteller, it’s Old Sparky for you. But if he or she has that jury spellbound, eating out of their hand, you know what will happen. Just like your grandmother promised you all those years ago when you sat on her knee.

You will live happily ever after.


Tham Khai Meng is the worldwide chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather

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