You’re a bestselling novelist whose books have been turned into film. You founded the live storytelling organization, The Moth, which now has a popular podcast and radio show. In Sparksheet terms, this is all very multiplatform. Are you walking proof that we’re experiencing a golden age of storytelling?
We’re not in a golden age of story telling because stories have been told magnificently throughout the millennia, but we are in a golden age of the kind of storytelling that we do at The Moth and which has now spread all over the world, which is telling personal, spontaneous true stories that reflect people’s basic humanity.
You describe The Moth as a throwback to when you’d stay up late into the Georgian night and swap stories with friends. As you say, it’s a kind of antithesis to the digital world. What is it about live events that attract people?
I started The Moth back in 1997 and over the past 17 years or so live storytelling has exploded, and I suppose in part, it is counterprogramming to electronic media.
It’s hype and balderdash that the web fosters a real sense of community. In some ways the internet is a very practical tool for finding like-minded people, but community is now, as it has always been, people getting together in a physical space and sharing themselves. And without that real physical space, there really isn’t a community.
The essence of marketing is learning how to tell a story, but I think The Moth provides another layer to that. The essence of raconteuring is the ability to express vulnerability and the essence of telling a great story is telling about one’s failures.
At the heart of every great story there is always a failure. The people who aren’t willing to talk about their own failures are never successful raconteurs and the ones who do, the ones who face up to their failures very, very early and express them in an open and honest way, win audiences over quickly, and that plays over into the business world.
It sounds like what you’re talking about is the humanization of brands, which is a big theme at Sparksheet. What brands do you think are particularly good at telling good and honest stories?
The ability to be honest about failure can be a powerful tool in marketing. I’d use Apple as an example.
There’s a story behind Apple and there’s a story behind Microsoft, but the reason we trust Apple over Microsoft is that the essence of the story of Apple is of imperfection.
It is the story of Steve Jobs being fired, having been a total failure and then finding his way back into the world and creating this great success. Obviously, the most important thing is whether the product works or not – but what leads us to the product in the first place is usually some story and a sense of honesty.
It’s amazing that if you look through the ages you’ll see that so many successful marketing campaigns are about a company being honest about its faults and foibles.
At the heart of every great story there is always a failure.
It’s why Avis was able to be so successful against Hertz by saying, “we’re only No. 2.” That idea of facing up in a marketing campaign – facing up right away to failure in a way that projects humanity is a powerful tool for anyone who knows how to wield it.
More important than any other lesson is, how do you reveal your vulnerability? That’s the essence of great storytelling and it’s as important for marketing as it is for raconteurs.
While brands are certainly more transparent now thanks in part to the web, there’s still huge risk involved in owning up to uncomfortable truths, no?
There is a lot of natural timidity about approaching that. It takes a great deal of courage to go up in front of a group of people and say, “this is where I fucked up.”
It’s so much easier to go up there and say, “this is where everyone around me was fucking up and I nailed it.” That’s an easy story to tell. That’s true for raconteurs and that’s obviously true for companies.
The sort of examination that goes into saying, “Look, the reason we’re able to create this great product now is because we were screwing up in the past,” that’s very difficult. But it’s a much more profound story, which when well told, has been proven to win over audiences.
In his own words
George Dawes Green compares Apple and Microsoft to show the power of vulnerability in brand storytelling.