17/02/2012

By Nick James, Fresh Business Thinking

Humans have used stories to communicate from the beginning of time and as children we can all remember those immortal words; “Once upon a time....”

American artificial intelligence theorist Roger Schank said that: “Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.”

Yet in many cases when organisations try to communicate with an audience they lapse into jargon or banality (defined by Webster as ‘lacking in originality, freshness or novelty’). My personal pet hate is the sort of announcements that train companies ‘spam’ us with such as;

“We apologise for the late running of this service. It is due to the late running of an earlier service.”

Not only is that complete trite it also starts to wind me up. OK, I understand the need for standardisation but the world is in great danger of sinking into ‘corporate speak’ just for the sake of saying something.

Great advertising makes good use of storytelling and therefore engages us and makes us feel all warm and fuzzy about the company that is trying to sell something to us.

One of my favourite current TV advertisements (as of February 2012) is where Usain Bolt has been impersonating Richard Branson to invite people to 'Keep Up' with Virgin Media.

In the ads Usain Bolt wears a Bransonesque blonde goatee beard while Richard attempts to get the usurper out of his office.

The ad is amusing and Bolt uses his title as the ‘fastest man alive’ to convey the speed of Virgin Media’s broadband connection by stealing the identity of Richard Branson.
In the context of 2012 as an Olympic year this has a great deal of relevance and obviously ‘identity theft’ is a current issue.

Of course the ad isn’t going to appeal to everybody and is definitely ‘cheesy’ but it is a concept that everyone can understand because it ‘tells a story’.

The ‘story’ is that Virgin Media is claiming that it will be doubling broadband speeds and the TV campaign is supported by advertising in the press, on posters, online and even with a ‘spoof’ Twitter argument between Bolt & Branson.

Now I’m not suggesting that the train announcements can be as creative as advertising but they can at least be a bit more informative and perhaps ‘honest’.

Very few businesses are able to afford someone like Usain Bolt as a spokesperson and indeed Richard Branson usually only publicises his own businesses — however even the smallest of businesses can find a ‘story’ and talk to their customers like humans rather than machines.

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