Be The Ball: Storytelling In The Age Of Fear

David Todd McCarty

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The concept of visualizing the outcome you desire is not new, and in fact has been around long enough to be considered quaint—antique even. Something your great-grandfather would have told you after finishing a Dale Carnegie course on winning friends and influencing people, or as Chevy Chase might have said it, “Be the ball, Danny.”

The truth is, storytelling is how we have traditionally moved forward from crisis as a species. It’s how we began to have conversations about something we didn’t understand; a lens through which we could visualize an outcome different than the one we were experiencing. We needed to be able to imagine the unimaginable, and storytellers have always been the ones to show us the way. Stories were how we made sense of the world. When science was beyond our grasp, we invented capricious gods that had their own motives for what was fair and what was fate. We stared into the fire, told stories that made the tribe feel like the world made sense, and trusted in the promise that it would all work out.

The cynic might argue that myths and legends are simply a way to fool the masses—a way for chiefs and kings to control the peasants. But storytellers offered much more than myth. They used stories to create worlds they could imagine to explain phenomenon they couldn’t explain. Using the facts at hand, and details that made sense to their reality, they crafted tales that allowed the tribe to see past their current circumstances. Why else would men get in boats and sail across an ocean, climb mountains, or traverse deserts? They believed in the power of the story and that, in and of itself, made it possible. The story made it real, simply because they believed.

There are two issues we are facing if we hope to return to any sort of normalcy at the other end of this global health crisis. One is psychological and the other is economic, and they are bound together with trust.

Trust is the catalyst for any functioning society. I hand you a twenty-dollar bill, and we all somehow agree that this has some predetermined value that enables me to trade that piece of paper for a six-pack of Sam Adams and a Snickers. Good branding always involves a core of trust. If I promise you that a product will behave a certain way, you might choose to trust that I am telling you the truth and give it a try. If you’re happy with the results, I will have gained your trust, at least for a time. But how did I get you to try it in the first place? I told you a story that seemed credible, believable and authentic. I told you a story that allowed you suspend your cynicism because the benefits outweighed the risk.

We judge brands in the much the same way we judge people. Some of us are skeptical, waiting to see how other people react to the new guy; we stand with our backs against the wall and observe. The fearless among us jump right in and engage immediately, inviting them into their circle. Most of us hang around the edges of that inner circle and slowly inch forward until the stranger is no longer an unknown quantity and has proven worthy of our trust.

New people and products develop trust over time, by being proven trustworthy and by being consistent. The advertising legend Bill Bernbach once said that good advertising would only make a bad product fail faster; it would get more people to try it and discover that it was bad. Good advertising will never make up for a bad product and no amount of storytelling will overcome a brand that proves unworthy of your trust.

The function of the storyteller is merely to relay what is possible, not what is real, but there must always be a grain of truth or the story will lack credibility. True or not, if you tell an unrealistic story, most people will find it unbelievable, and therefore, untrustworthy. That’s why a good story has to be based in a reality we can fathom, and then give us the ability to reach beyond what we already know, and grasp a new reality.

So now we find ourselves in a situation beyond our control, reasonably frightened by a threat we cannot see, and we must decide who is trustworthy and who is worthy of overcoming a basic risk assessment. Polling suggests people will feel comfortable in a post-covid world when they are able to control their immediately surroundings. Which means brands need to convey a truth that they too are concerned with your welfare, and have taken the proper precautions to minimize any risks. They have to prove they are trustworthy and it’s not enough to simply say, “trust me.”

The storyteller must weave a narrative that creates a demand that is greater than your fears, all the while building a level of trust that is credible. You don’t need to build the entire bridge and you don’t need everyone. You need to convince the early adopters to step forward and prove that you are trustworthy. The people on the fringes will follow in due time and eventually those standing against the wall will join you.

Be the ball.

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Writer, Director, Photographer, Designer, and Journalist. I am endlessly curious about politics, street food, photography, and garden gnomes.

Cape May Court House, NJ
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