Stories surround us, from coworkers recapping a weekend away, to smells and tastes, to memories we acquire throughout our life. As humans we inherently wear the hat of storyteller and we weave our experiences into truth and fiction; depending on who you are that title also comes with varying degrees of embellishment. For better or for worse we are all liars.
“Scientists have discovered that the memories we use to form our own life stories are boldly fictionalized.”
— Jonathan Gotschall
Jonathan Gotschall recently published a new book titled, The Story Telling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. As humans with five senses we absorb truth from what we are exposed to and we color in the spots that we perceive lack the proper hue. Sometimes we color over what was true to begin with and are left with an edited cut that we pass on to others to share and edit some more.
Imagine eavesdropping on the morning bus ride that leads you to conclude your own ending to an argument. When you repeat your version of the story later that afternoon the scene has changed from “a few people on the bus noticed” to “the whole bus was staring.” Likewise, your regurgitation of what happened while on a trip to the grocery store with your boyfriend morphs from “he threw some sushi in the cart” to “he planned a whole dinner.” Temperature changes from “warm” to “beach-like paradise.” New shoes feel “tight in the toe” but when confronted about their comfort are described as “great, because quality material takes time to break in.” Certainly extreme abuse of embellishment is defined as delusion but in reality each time humans weave in a new thread to make their story one degree more colorful the future audience gets a vignette that is perhaps, spotty on truth.
“We spend our lives crafting stories that make us the noble—if flawed—protagonists of first-person dramas. … A life story is not, however, an objective account. A life story is a carefully shaped narrative … replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings.” For this reason, he asserts, all memoirs, no matter how much their authors believe them to be true, should come with a disclaimer: “Based on a true story.””
— Jonathan Gotschall from The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human via The Atlantic
Why do we care?
In a world where brands have research capabilities to speak to consumers day in and day out they have the privilege to a front row seat at story time. Consumers love to share. As strategists and researchers we need to listen but we also need to be aware of the noise that might be surrounding the truth. I wish I had an example of how tapping into the noise (the embellishment) has led to an insightful breakthrough; I don’t have one off-hand. I am more fascinated by the initial callout on human behavior.
I think what’s important out of this is the reminder that we are all humans with human tendencies. While consumers will share their experiences, their habits and their lifestyles, they are also adding color where they perceive a need for ‘oompf’ and they are toning down the bits that they feel the need to gray. Their editing is done for a purpose and as we go about our conversations with consumers it would suit us all to be on the lookout for the noise and start to get at, ‘the why?’ Maybe there’s an opportunity for brands to diminish the edits being told by being a better solution to begin with, or maybe the edits enhance the consumer experience and are fine as is. Maybe…or maybe I’m just telling tales.