A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Chicago to attend the annual HOW Design Live Conference, the country’s biggest conference for designers. During my two-day stint there, two sessions really stuck with me: “Anatomy of a Brainstorm,” led by Stephan Mumaw of Callahan Creek, and “How to Pitch Persuasively,” led by Lisa Colantuono of AAR Partners.

Brainstorming and pitching couldn’t be more different as processes. One is an organic, largely unorchestrated group activity. The other is carefully planned theater, usually led by a single individual. Yet Mumaw and Colantuono recommended exactly the same framework for success: story.

Mumaw recommended using classic narrative structure—exposition, conflict, climax, resolution—to frame and guide a brainstorming session. Colantuono said that any pitch that relies on numbers or facts instead of a compelling narrative—again, exposition, conflict, climax, resolution—is doomed to fail.

Now “story” has been the advertising buzzword du jour for a while now. It’s nothing new to hear creative professionals talk about how important it is to advertising. It’s not necessarily even new for people to say it’s key to producing and selling creative ideas. But both Mumaw and Colantuano were so persuasive that I got to thinking all over again about the power of story and its place not only in advertising, but also in my day-to-day work life.


Driving home from Chicago, I caught up on podcasts: Unfictional, Radiolab, Sideshow. Somewhere in the middle of a heartbreaking story about a guy who tracked down a kid he bullied during high school 20 years later to apologize to him, it occurred to me: When our attention is finally free to choose where it goes, it heads straight for stories.

Stories, even the sad ones, give us pleasure. They give us something to get lost in. They sweep us up and take us away, Calgon-style. Stories are the ultimate seduction tool. And what is advertising, if not seduction?

Problem is, it’s easy to talk about story. What the gurus don’t tell you is how hard it is to craft a good one. A good story requires a good idea. It requires planning. It requires technique. It requires revising, again and again (and again). And even after all of that, for some head-banging reason, it still might suck.

Telling a good story is hard. A good story has a kind of music to it. It has formal elegance. It has unmistakable humanity. Most important, a good story involves change. Things happen in a story, and they happen in a manner that entices people to keep paying attention. Change—real, meaningful, interesting change—is a story’s lifeblood.

That’s where a lot of advertising types run into problems: They tell stories where nothing—or nothing interesting, anyway—changes. Take the classic corporate video: It’s slickly produced and tastefully shot. The script hits on all of the brand’s key points—customer service, quality products, innovation. And the whole thing is painfully, mercilessly boring. Why? Because nothing changes. And where there’s no change, there’s no story.

It’s a shame, because most organizations do have interesting stories to tell, even if they don’t know it. What happens, though, is that they either A) hire the wrong agency, or B) aren’t interested in having their story told.

Many agencies excel at putting together shiny, respectable-looking packages that have the sheen of story, but none of its substance. And often clients will let them do it, because it’s safe.

Telling a story—a real story—comes with risk. A real story might embarrass you. A real story is revealing. It invites judgment and criticism. It demands vulnerability.


One of HOW’s keynote speakers this year, Dr. Brene Brown, talks a lot about vulnerability. Her TedX talk on the subject has made her something of a celebrity (you can watch it here). A key message in her talk is that the path to authenticity starts with vulnerability.

You can’t tell a real story without putting yourself on the line. And that goes as much for brands as it does for people. Bullshit doesn’t sell, because everybody can sniff out bullshit these days. So why bother with it? Better to be vulnerable. To be unapologetically and fearlessly genuine. To be an open book, in a manner of speaking.

Of course, that’s just part of the equation. The other part: Hire an ad agency that is fiercely devoted to telling stories. One that puts “narrative” and “plot” on the same plane as “positioning” and “messaging.” One that has invested in writers who can successfully combine the elements of great storytelling with the principles of great advertising.

One that—at the risk of sounding immodest—is a lot like us.