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Narrative Beats Digital Goldfish.

“Humans live in a storm of stories.”  Jonathan Gottschall is the author The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human tells us…

Oh yeah, these days, more like a Stage 5 hurricane of stories.

Every minute, 24 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, 36,000 tweets are posted on Twitter, and 600,000 pieces of content are shared on Facebook. Some experts predict the information on the Internet will double every 72 hours.

But as the glut of  infomania is increasing, our attention spans are decreasing.  According to the BBC News, all this web surfing, e-mail pinging, tweeting, smartphone buzzing and Olympics-level,multi-tasking has reduced our attention spans to about 9 seconds. long.  Which is about the attention span of a goldfish. Gulp!

In a three-part series for Co.Create, author Jonathan Gottschall discusses how stories have real power to hold human attention and shape our thinking.

Well, you knew that right, I mean that great stories capture our emotions and imaginations.  For you logical folks, PowerPoint to follow. Well, actually he does delve into the science of storytelling, too.  So there’s something for all side sof the brain.

Of course, no story can save the interruptive video pre-rolls, pop-up ads, blinking banners from turning us desensitized Zombies.

But if you want sound advice for the digital age, here’s how the age-old art of story-telling can re-focus our concentration and undivide our attention.

Here’s the first part:

How Narrative Cuts Through the Distraction Like Nothing else:

Humans live in a storm of stories. live in stories all day long, and dream in stories all night long. We communicate through stories and learn from them.

We collapse gratefully into stories after a long day at work. Without personal life stories to organize our experience, our own lives would lack coherence and meaning. Homo sapiens (wise man) is a pretty good definition for our species. But Homo fictus (fiction man) would be about as accurate.

Man is the storytelling animal.

When it comes to marketing, a company like Coca-Cola gets this. They know that, deep down, they are much more a story factory than a beverage factory. No matter what they’d like us to believe, Coke’s success isn’t due to some magic in their fizzy syrup water (at least not since they took the actual cocaine out). Coke excels because they’ve been clobbering the opposition in the story wars for more than a century. People want to see themselves in the stories Coke tells. Coke understands that their customer is a member of the species Homo fictus, and that they will succeed or fail based largely on the power of their storytelling.

As Scott Donaton argued in a recent Co.Create post, other brands should learn this lesson as well as Coke has. “The challenge is clear by now,” Donaton writes, “Intrusive, interruptive, self-centered marketing no longer works the way it once did, and its effectiveness will only continue to diminish in the social age. The question is what will replace the legacy model. There’s a one-word answer: stories.” Story is the answer for two reasons, both of them backed by compelling science. First, because people are naturally greedy for stories, they have a unique ability to seize and rivet our attention. Second, stories aren’t just fun escapism–they have an almost spooky ability to mold our thinking and behavior. In this post, I’ll describe the science behind the attention-seizing power of stories, leaving their molding power for a follow-up post.

Brands play in an intensely competitive attention economy. The problem isn’t just that attention is a woefully scarce resource relative to demand, it’s that it’s also shattered and scattered around. We can’t blame our smart phones or other modern technologies for our short attention spans. The human mind is a wanderer by nature. The daydream is the mind’s default state. Whenever the mind doesn’t have something really important to do, it gets bored and wanders off into la-la land. Studies show that we spend about half of our waking hours–1/3 of our lives on earth–spinning fantasies. We have about two-thousand of these a day (!), with an average duration of fourteen seconds. In other words, our minds are simply flitting all over the place all the time.

So this is the most fundamental challenge we face in the attention economy: how do we pin down the wandering mind? How do we override the natural tendency for a mind to skip away from whatever we are showing it? By telling stories. In normal life, we spin about one-hundred daydreams per waking hour. But when absorbed in a good story–when we watch a show like Breaking Bad or read a novel like The Hunger Games–we experience approximately zero daydreams per hour. Our hyper minds go still and they pay close attention, often for hours on end. This is really very impressive. What it means is that story acts like a drug that reliably lulls us into an altered state of consciousness.

To illustrate why, let’s run a thought experiment. Imagine you are living in Paris in 1896, and you’ve been invited to see something that you’ve heard about but never seen. You walk out of the bright hot streets into a cool, dark theater, and there’s a white screen that opens up in a dazzling explosion of light–like a window thrown open on an alternative universe. You are watching one of the first films screenings in the world. And what you see through the magic window is terrifying. The film is by the Lumiere brothers and it is called The Arrival of a TrainGo ahead, watch it now–but brace yourself! Arguably, this is history’s first horror film.

Don’t bother watching the whole thing. Nothing happens. A train arrives at a station and people mill around. Were you terrified? Well, according to film lore, the first audience for this film was so terrified that they shot out of their seats and stampeded for the exit. They did not want to get run over by that train. Film historians believe this story of chaos in a Parisian theater is probably exaggerated. But whether true or not, the story communicates the same idea. The first movie audiences were totally unsophisticated about the illusion of film. But after more than a century of experience, we moderns are highly sophisticated about film. Movie trains don’t scare us anymore.

But not so fast. Consider this trailer for the horror film Paranormal Activity 3.What’s happening here? These people aren’t idiots. This isn’t their first film. They know the blood isn’t real. They know there are no ghosts or monsters in the theater. They know everything they are seeing is just light flickering on a two-dimensional background. So why are they treating fake things as real? Neuroscience of brains on fiction gives us a clue. If you slide a person into an FMRI machine that watches the brain while the brain watches a story, you’ll find something interesting–the brain doesn’t look like a spectator, it looks more like a participant in the action. When Clint Eastwood is angry on screen, the viewers’ brains look angry too; when the scene is sad, the viewers’ brains also look sad.

“We” know the story is fake, but that doesn’t stop the unconscious parts of the brain from processing it like real. That’s why the audience for a horror film cringes in their chairs, screams for help, and balls up to protect their vital organs. That’s why our hearts race when the hero of a story is cornered–why we weep over the fate of a pretend pet like Old Yeller. Stories powerfully hook and hold human attention because, at a brain level, whatever is happening in a story is happening to us and not just them.

But this all leads to a bigger question. Most of us think of stories as a way to pleasantly while away our leisure time. Is there any evidence that story is actually effective in influencing us–in modifying our thinking and behavior? Yes. Lots. That’s the subject of my next post.

Read the second post in the series: Infecting An Audience: Why Great Stories Spread.    

Curate or Produce: which content path should you take?

4 tools to help you curate:

To help you get started with your content curation, here are four tools that can help reduce the time and effort it takes to find relevant content. Each tool provides a distinct benefit in sourcing and organizing relevant content:

Swayy recommends articles, mixed with trending keywords for the topics you find interesting. It also provides an analytics dashboard that shows how people react to your content through your social platforms.

Prismatic provides you with a content stream based on interests that align with your theme. It’s also designed to help you branch out from what you’re already seeing, to discover new material.

Storify allows you to turn what people post on social media into compelling stories.

Pearltrees is a social network that is based on interests, providing the ability to collect, organize and share content, which can act as a home for your curation efforts.

The buzz around content, and brands becoming publishers, has been around for a while but one hurdle to using content as part of our marketing strategies is the cost. Countries with limited budgets often struggle to build platforms and fill them with content without thinking about what resources are already there.

And that’s where curation comes in.

“If we don’t have the budget to make original content, curating existing content can be a smarter way of doing it,” says Barrie Seppings, Creative Director of IBM GMU. “But curation is not the same as collection, you can’t just jam a bunch of links together.”

The top tips for good content curation:

1. Know where the conversation is up to.

Your first step is to find where the conventional wisdom is up to, and your thought leadership needs to be a few steps beyond that.

“Curation is familiarising yourself with the topic, you almost have to become an instant expert yourself and it really does pay off to invest that time upfront,” says Barrie.

If you enter the conversation and you are behind in what is being discussed, it’s like turning up late to a party and trying to impress with a topical joke that’s already been told.

2. Take stock of your content resources.

What content has been produced in the area that you are talking about? Don’t always look at IBM worldwide either, consider what other regional markets have put out.

3. Context is everything.

“If you are just collecting links, that Google’s job,” says Barrie. “You have to react to those points of view.” He points to the entomology of the word curation, and its use in art galleries. “It means someone has looked at a lot of art and made a decision about what they think is good or valuable, interesting or relevant and they have assembled a collection and the collection itself says something greater than the individual pieces of art,” Barrie adds.

So curation has three main parts: Collecting, Arranging and Commenting.

Where does original content fit in?

Charlie Lowe, Associate Director of Social Media Strategy in IBM GMU, says that original content often works best in tandem with curation. “Definitely create if you have a suitable budget that gives you the ability to create rich exciting content, but you should aim to do both,” he says. “When creating the content, use curation as the mortar around the bricks to ensure you have a strong wall.”

He cites a good IBM example as the Smarter Marketing Today blogs by IBM ASEAN CMO JoJo Cheung, where she originates blogs to drive a conversation amongst CMOs.

“Jojo can look to identify different things that are going on within the industry and add a layer of opinion and thoughts around that,” says Charlie.

And with curation of content comes a new set of rules, journalistic norms that you ignore at your peril.

“The key is to curation is to acknowledge origin. Distributing content that is not yours in origination and pretending that it is can be incredibly dangerous and ultimately gets found out,” says Barrie. “So attribution is important, we are heading into a journalistic realm, rules apply and we need to learn them.”

So for your next project, before you start to assemble your content, choose your overarching theme/message you’re looking to convey, then take a step back and have a look what content’s available to you. Best case-scenario: you are able to combine both a curated and created mix to achieve a robust content offering that not only has your POV, but also has a wider industry lens to support your argument.

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