I had a conversation with some folks at my shop on Thursday afternoon as the great ‘balloon boy’ fiasco unfolded about why it was such compelling watching. We all kind of felt stupid about being sucked into such a strange story and the conversation made me realize just why it was such a powerful news story: Caveman Theory
This theory is something I came to create when the Army foolishly sent me to grad school a couple of years ago and I took a class with a smart guy named Mark McKinnon who ran media strategy for both of President Bush’s and Senator McCain’s campaigns. He made it clear that successfully reaching people involved telling a story and using the same theories of narrative that haven’t changed since we all sat around fires with leftover mammoth meatloaf on rocks near the entrance of our caves.
My Caveman Theory is simple really, that all great narratives have the same basic parts that haven’t changed in millenia. Whether it’s a great play, a compelling novel or a successful political campaign the building blocks are all the same:
1) Threat- You have to have a threat or an opportunity that has to be solved or defeated.
2) Victim- There has to be a victim of that threat or an opportunity.
3) Villain- Great stories have a villain who is threatening the victim.
4) Hero- You need the person or group who provides the resolution to the threat and saves the day for the victim—hopefully he has some panache while he does it.
Our young would be aviator’s (or hoaxster’s) story provides a compelling narrative when you look at its parts as it unfolded on the television and internet. The threat is pretty obvious in the danger posed by the unplanned flight across Colorado. Falcon seemed to be the victim of his own curiosity gone awry. The villain took the form of the wayward helium flying saucer monstrosity and our hero’s were the brave police, rescue workers and National Guardsmen chasing the craft.
Now you sprinkle in a little fairy dust known as social media and you have the birth of a meme and major pop cultural news story with thousands following along via Twitter and Facebook. Every cable news outlet saw a dramatic rise in viewership and a rash of fail whales on Twitter showed the high following online.
A strong narrative is compelling to us as human beings and still the best way to communicate a message or persuade others no matter what venue the story is transmitted. Whether its a campfire in a cave, a Facebook wall post or a campaign ad narrative is essential.
I am constantly telling my fellow public affairs offiers and the journalists that have worked for me that that we have to tell a story instead of just present the dry facts and speeches that the military loves so much. Sure, the general wants to have an “event” like a ribbon cutting or big cardboard thing to sign but those aren’t stories. They aren’t compelling to watch at all so its no wonder they garner no news at all.
We need to find someone who was suffering until that ribbon was cut on the new family support center and how that new facility and its dedicated employees came to the rescue of this person in need. That’s a story. Same subject…better approach.
Here is the example I always use when explaining my Caveman Theory to other folks and tell me which of these approaches is more engaging to you the reader?
This around the campfire:
“I, Chief Wannaeattoday, has led our great tribe as our powerful spears slayed the mighty mammoth bringing us food and power over all we see. Tonight we feast after our mighty warriors conquered the rampaging beast that was trampling our children at the river and now our families will sleep peacefully in safety and no one will dare challenge our tribe in all our lands.”
Or this at a podium:
“Ladies and gentleman, I am pleased to introduce Chief John Wannaeattoday.”
“Thank you for coming to our cave today. I asked you to come out as I am proud to announce the fielding of the new XM-1000 Superior Primary Environmental Advanced Response (SPEAR) Mammoth Slaying System that when fully fielded will greatly enhance our tribal forces ability to easily engage and reduce the giant hairy elephants in our area of operations and continue the overall ecosystem supremacy enjoyed today by our loincloth covered forces.”
The Caveman Theory makes it clear a story with a narrative is a lot more interesting. That’s why balloon boy was interesting and that’s what we need to remember even in the wired social media world. Telling a story is what matters if we want folks to listen to what we have to say.
(This was originally posted on my personal blog Armed and Curious http://armedandcurious.blogspot.com/ and posterous)