Sweet Thoughts



The story of things, my favourite obsession

By Serene Goh

Everybody loves a good story. Stories are a ravel of the human condition, begging to be untangled for closer examination.

As a form of consumption, we use stories to tether ourselves to one another, form contexts, and collaborate within them. It’s all a bid to process key events and our own place within a grander scheme. So long as we are sentient, we need stories.

And so long as this need exists, the information trade will outdo itself trying to feed it.

Our obsession with transmission speed has resulted in the Internet of Things, which now powers our physical landscape with an infrastructure of hyperconnected blips. But I reckon more of that attention needs to go towards shaping the Story of Things – our social and emotional environment.

Speed itself is not meaning. The most enduring stories speak the language of the soul, so it is worth taking stock of why we tell stories at all, not just how quickly we can push them out.

The millennial that marketers find so elusive? He expresses this yearning for stories more than folks of any other generation. Constantly linked to his mobile devices, his quest for relatable narratives has made him both his own audience and publisher: he is everywhere at once, commenting, posting, re-Tweeting, hashtagging.

Blame his open-source upbringing. Nurtured by the web’s 24/7, free access to information across networks and disciplines, he has become an incessant communicator. His tribe is a data community in which expertise is exchanged without charge, pecking order or gatekeeping. So he prizes transparency, a lack of hierarchy, truth and trust. For him, facts without emotional collateral seem less “real”.

So I’m making a case to celebrate stories.

Not just those told in 140 characters, but full-formed ones that expose our hearts. The genuine accounts of humanity, unfettered by pretense or gimmick. The ones with vivid characters and unique details, rich with texture and depth. Solid themes worthy of distribution at any point in mass media’s history, not because they can go viral, but because they embody universal truths. Tales so well told that an audience forgets a teller is even there.

I’m stealing a line from Aaron Sorkin to explain why I’ll always love them: “The most powerful delivery system ever invented for an idea is a story.”

The Oscar-winner, best known for the rapid-fire, walk-and-talk format of TV’s The West Wing, made the statement in February when he received the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for television writing at the Writers Guild Awards West Coast. His point: the awesome power of a story lies in its ability to launch important conversations that imagine the future.

Journalists will be the first to toast that. Even cub reporters, who cut their teeth on news briefs, learn to spot a central concept, the big idea. We aim to show, rather than tell, to persuade and engage. We try to justify why a thing ought to matter. In moments we take ourselves too seriously, we think of our work as literature in a hurry; history’s first drafts. We guard our credibility. We offer context, background and research to round out our features, creating a niche for each one within the annals of time.

Then we jettison the most urgent items to the top of the must-know list; and do it while trying to maintain balance and accuracy. If we keep an audience rapt, we can also check the boxes of having been entertaining and useful too.

How does this work for someone who needs a story told? Well, the scribe draws on hues of shared experiences, to interpret a subject’s most humanising traits. In the hands of a craftsman, a series of facts become a revelation of how someone negotiates life, and what defines his legacy.

Writing a story about an organisation, a brand – a thing – is not that different.

Today’s audiences need first to get to know a personality and what he stands for, before throwing their hard-earneds to what he’s selling.

To a storyteller, a brand might be thought of as a person, say, a celebrity. If it entered a party, how might it be introduced? What is its appeal? What is its body of work, and what business does it have there? How does its presence impact its surrounding, its home base, the region, the world? What are its aspirations? How does it want to be remembered and, ultimately, why should that mean anything to anyone?

Is it, for instance, the class clown whose antics received the most hyuks, a Will Ferrell? A consummate expert, a Meryl Streep, who consistently delivers winning performances? Or the epitome of class, a Cate Blanchett? A lifetime innovator, a David Bowie?

When there is a legacy that comes with a style of storytelling, a brand can count on certain assurances: representation that is reputable, reliable, resistant. It can count on craftsmen for an authentic portrait that shows how it behaves.

Brands, like their creators, must find their voice in a future as coherently expressed stories so that they matter more – and lastingly. Else, they risk losing their identities in a marketplace sick with noise.

It’s well to keep pace with the Internet of Things. But to sculpt an abiding core, you’ll also need soul: the Story of Things.


Serene Goh

Serene is the Head of Editorial Content at Sweet. She believes in the power of stories and their tellers.