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Using narrative to tell a story better (and the balloon boy)

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)

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Frederick P. Wellman

Andy and Amanda thanks so much for the positive reviews. My writing isn’t terribly academic but it comes from experience. I am passionate about never forgetting that even with our new tools that Gov 2.0 provides it still comes down to having a compelling story/content that will connect us with the public.


People always underestimate the power of storytelling. I think its because it is seen as juvenile and not serious enough. Wouldnt it be more professional if we used lots of buzzwords and made it complicated….

Frederick P. Wellman

@GovLoop: precisely! Plus it means that you probably won’t feature a general/secretary/undersecretary…etc in the story and that just won’t fly! I can’t tell you how much I hate big cardboard things to sign!

@Ed: I don’t blame the media for covering that story…clearly there was a following and interest or so many wouldn’t have tuned in! My frustration is directed at us government communicators. If we presented our stories in a compelling narrative and then leveraged the power of social media tools to get it out there we wouldn’t have to worry about getting bumped by anyone else. Humans are drawn to a good narrative…we have to find that story and tell it. I used to tell my guys in Iraq that when they went to the bathroom to ask the guy next to them his/her story. In almost every case you would find a fascinating story that easily. You just have to seek it out.

Tim Verras

And if you haven’t already, I highly suggest the classic Power of Myth, by Joesph Campbell. Beyond being a powerfully influential book, it goes in depth about your caveman theory and defines what it means to be a hero (or a villain) and why this is hardwired into the human psyche. As you say, the stories never change, just the gloss.

Jim Sullivan

I agree that storytelling is a powerful way to explain an issue, but I don’t think that is what grabbed our attention. My first reaction when I heard about it was “oh no, another balloon accident”. Then I saw the video of the father and kids jumping around as the flying saucer balloon lifted off. The TV said it was filled with helium. A little voice in my head started talking: “That’s not really a large balloon. How could it lift a 35 pound child?” Another voice (I have many…) said “Ya know, that compartment looks like cardboard”. Then yet another voice asked “Why don’t we see the boy trying to get out?” And those voices wouldn’t shut up! So I kept watching if only to get an answer so I could get some peace and quiet. Then the other information started coming. The family had been on a reality TV show prompting another voice to say “Oh my, looks like a publicity stunt”. Then I learned the husband and wife met in acting school. ACTING SCHOOL! All my voices started talking at once, but all agreed, something was rotten in Colorado. Today they are quiet and so I have stopped following the story, having come to a consensus among my many voices. In other words, we watch so we can come to a conclusion, to make sense out of a story that makes little sense, not because we like a good tale. I’m sure the story continues to unfold, but now that I’ve satisfied what happened, I’m no longer interested in following it. Now I’m trying to figure out why 40% of Americans do not trust the swine flu vaccine. It doesn’t make sense and so my voices are getting noisy again.

Knut Svendsen

I was in Germany when this media event occurred. I was flipping through channels on the hotel room TV and CNN was covering the story with breathless concern. I watched about 30 seconds of it as rescuers attacked the balloon with shovels as it finally touched down. I continued flipping channels to find some other English news channel that was not so tabloid in its content. Sure enough, next morning, sitting in the airport in Nuremberg I overheard two Brits ridiculing the assinine American “news story”. I just kept my mouth shut. What could I say?

Katina R. Stapleton

I liked your quote so much I tweeted it “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”- Course I scheduled it so ppl will get it Friday around lunch under @krsprof. BTW your Caveman theory fits perfectly with work on the use of narrative in the construction of social problems.

Katina R. Stapleton

Hey – We should chat for sure. I am part of a team working on a wounded warrior website idea at ED. We might be able to use your input.

Maree Kimberley

The story also had many of the ‘sticky’ elements described in the book ‘Made to Stick: why some ideas thrive and others die’ by Chip and Dan Heath. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in what makes a story/idea not only grab the public’s attention but stick in their minds.

Frederick P. Wellman

@Maree…thanks! Three good book recommendations off this thread! Very cool. I don’t mean to imply that narrative is the only reason ‘balloon boy’ was an interesting story. I was stretching the metaphor a bit to make the point that as communicators we need to think of what will appeal to our audiences when we try to inform the public. Its so easy to slide into “standard PR procedures” and not find ways to make sure our messages are making their way through the clutter to people we want to reach be it the evening news or social media.