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Why DARPA is Researching Storytelling

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Allan Enemark

When was the last time you heard a good story? While images of Dr. Seuss might come to mind, storytelling is actually such a prevalent part of life it can be easily overlooked. But in-spite of the pervasiveness, this form of human narrative is a powerful medium, able to simply communicate complex ideas in any circumstance. Yet it is not used nearly enough.

As part of humanity long before recorded history, storytelling’s connection with our early ancestors might help explain why resonates with us today. Studies have shown that human narratives impart a strong connection to its listeners. Through some evolved neurobiological mechanism, stories are able to bypass mental reasoning centers and tap directly into our emotions. Having access to that part of the brain allows the storyteller to cut through the noise of our hyperstimulating world, and leave the listener with a strong impression about whatever they have heard.

But, while it might be easy to brush off telling stories as a fluffy skill that has no measurable value, this is not a position the United States Department of Defense holds. Its research wing, DARPA, is conducting studies to find the neuroscientific implications of human narratives. Clearly that agency would not bother with such a topic unless it held tangible benefits, amicable or not.

Of course, you don’t need a multimillion-dollar development program to tease out the usefulness from storytelling, and the Story of Stuff is a perfect example. Taking on such dry topics as supply chains and landfills, the Story of Stuff spins those typically complex issues into a compelling narrative that is simple to understand. The average person does not have the time nor interest to invest in learning the intricacies of a product life cycle, but they can listen to a story. When well-told, an emotionally stimulating story can inspire a person to care and move to act upon a cause. Which is why the Story of Stuff is such an effective example, as its use of story encapsulates an intricate issue into a manageable call for action.

Yet, the capabilities of story telling can also be used elsewhere. The article, Why We Need Storytellers at the Heart of Product Development, presents a compelling argument for why project managers need to become good storytellers as well. Keeping the various divergent project groups such as marketing, design or engineering in sync with the strategic goals of an endeavor, can be extremely challenging. But with a good story, a project gains a unifying thread that can tie a company’s brand vision through its product development teams and out toward its customers, with one clear message. As Sarah Doody succinctly states in her article, “If you want your product to be heard by consumers, it must be rooted in a story that consumers can emotionally connect with.”

Learning how to become a good storyteller can create numerous advantages in reaching an audience, effectively communicating complex ideas, and unifying a message across divergent groups. But if those are not reason enough, everyone still loves a good story.

Allan Enemark is a practicing Industrial Designer & sustainable MBA candidate of the Presidio Graduate School. Drop him a line at allan.enemark@presidiomba.org