Sacks: Why Stories Sell; Why We Care, Part 1

story_wars_review_11172016Jonah Sacks.[1] 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Got to Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the online world that surrounds us, we are bombarded with messages from morning to night: email, spam, pop-ups, video, print media, text-ads, robo-calls, and even old-fashioned, telephone solicitors. Because messages bombard us from morning to night, only the most sophisticated ads get and hold our attention. At the heart of these winning ads is usually a mythical story.

Against this backdrop, in his book, Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sacks writes:

“We live in a world that has lost its connection to its traditional myths, and we are now trying to find new ones—we’re people and that’s what people without myths do.

These myths will shape our future, how we live, what we do, and what we buy. They will touch all of us. But not all of us get to write them. Those that do have tremendous power.” (6)

Among those competing to gain this power through telling such stories are authors, film-makers, advertisers, religious leaders, and politicians of all stripes. Because it is not clear whose stories will dominate our attention (17), the recent election is a reminder that a lot is at stake.

In this environment of competing myth-making, oral tradition has become increasingly important because social media facilitates immediate feedback between story tellers and their audience, reminiscent of a time when story tellers gathered with their audiences primarily around a campfire. Because “all wars are story wars” (29), Sacks sees story telling as critical, not only to marketers who can either lift us up or tear us down, but also to citizens who may find themselves manipulated into fighting real wars.

So who is Jonah Sacks? Sack describes himself as a: “story expert, filmmaker and entrepreneur”. His back cover and website includes this description:

“As the co-founder and CEO of Free Range Studios, Jonah has helped hundreds of major brands and causes break through the media din with unforgettable [ad] campaigns. His work on legendary viral videos like The Meatrix and The Story of Stuff series have brought key social issues to the attention of more than 65 million people online. A constant innovator, his studio’s websites and stories have taken top honors three times at the South by Southwest Film Festival.”

Sacks divides his book into two parts and eight chapters, preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue:

Part One: The Broken World of Storytelling

  1. The Story Wars are All Around Us
  2. The Five Deadly Sins
  3. The Myth Gap
  4. Marketing’s Dark Art

Part Two: Shaping the Future

  1. Tell the Truth, Part I: The Art of Empowerment Marketing
  2. Tell the Truth, Part II: The Hero’s Journey
  3. Be Interesting: Freaks, Cheats, and Familiars
  4. Live the Truth. (vii)

Once you buy into the idea that stories matter and matter a lot, Sacks starts by instructing us on what not to do—the five deadly sins—which are vanity, authority, insincerity, puffery, and gimmickry (35). Vanity arises as an early problem because “when you love what you’re selling” … “you assume everyone else will too” (36).  Sacks uses an unforgettable example when he compares the acceptance speeches of John Kerry and George W. Bush in 2004—Kerry talks mostly about John Kerry, while Bush talks about what “we” can do (37-38). The contrast could not be greater. The other four sins are equally hard to avoid and quick to kill the credibility of a story.

Sacks repeatedly returns to myth as an important component in story telling. He describes myth as neither true not false, but existing in a separate reality (59). He attributes three ingredients in myth: symbolic thinking, having three elements tied together—story, explanation, and meaning, and ritual (59-61). For example, in Genesis Sacks sees creation as a myth with these three elements:

“STORY:               God created the world in seven days and gave man dominion over it.

EXPLANATION: This is how everything we see around us came into existence.

MEANING:          So God deserves our gratitude and obedience.” (60)

An important observation drives much of Sacks’ own storyline:

“a myth gap arises when reality changes dramatically and our myths are not resilient enough to continue working in the face of that change.” (61)

In our “rationalist modern society” (62) where people refuse to think symbolically, the myth gap zaps meaning and leaves people in an intractable state of hopelessness. “Forward-thinking religious leaders, scientists, and entertainers” who attempt to “reunify story, explanation, and meaning in their work” are quickly pushed out of the mainstream (63). Thus, the myth gap remains and people suffer.

Jonah Sacks’ book “Winning the Story Wars” is a non-fiction, page turner. The hugely fascinating illustrations are by Drew Beam. [2] In part 2 of this review, I will examine in more depth Sacks’ exploration of modern advertising and why we care.

[1] http://WinningTheStoryWars.com. @JonahSachs.

[2] http://DrewBeam.com. @DrewBeam.

You may also like

Leave a Reply