Wednesday 27th April, 2016

Marketers need to think in story

We don’t just want to know what is, we want to understand why it is. And, most importantly, what it means to us. We just can’t help ourselves.

In 1944 two psychologists, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, created a simple animated film, which they used to explore the way the human mind interprets information.

Watch their short film below and when it’s finished take a couple of minutes to describe to yourself what you’ve just seen.

What did you see?

The chances are you’ve created a story in your mind. Most people see the larger triangle as an aggressor and the smaller triangle and circle as being connected in some way in an attempt to escape the larger triangle.

Now stop for a second. This is such a natural instinct you’re probably not questioning it. The truth is, what’s just happened is quite incredible.

All you’ve actually seen is some shapes moving about on a screen. The film itself is fundamentally meaningless. Until we apply story thinking to what we’re seeing. Suddenly it becomes a drama that plays out vividly in our minds.

We find ourselves emotionally engaged, often willing on the two smaller shapes to escape what we typically see as the bullying behaviour of the larger triangle. We have created meaning, because that’s what humans do.


We don’t value data or information in itself.

We value it for what it means to us. The weather forecast is meaningless data until we apply it to our plans for the day. We don’t ask the time for any abstract interest in how far through the day we are, we want to know because it means something to what we’re doing now or next.

The question marketers need to ask themselves is this: are we communicating with our audience in the language of data? Or are we communicating with them in the language of meaning?

Too often I still see businesses and brands limiting their thinking to a data mindset. To pumping out ‘key messages’ and providing their audience with an endless stream of ‘stuff’ without focusing on the meaning, the story that could really make the difference.

Story is the universal human framework for meaning. It’s the original and ultimate social media. Story is not just a metaphor for how we communicate, it IS how we communicate and share ideas that matter.

What’s your story and how are you telling it in a meaningful way?