The most powerful technique? Whatever fits the context.
I just came across this interesting piece by Mark White about corporate blogs and storytelling. He cites an entry on Copyblogger in which author Brian Clark tells us a story – and receives mixed reactions from his readers.
The comments on Copyblogger illustrate why telling a story in the context of a corporate blog (or in marketing) has a number of caveats. Firstly, we associate certain types of texts (or genres) with their communicative purpose. In other words, we are used to novels having narrative qualities (a setting or frame, a central figure or narrator, use of past tense etc) while an op-ed column is expected to be suasive, an entry in an encyclopedia informative and so forth.
Now what would happen if I wrote a Wikipedia entry about myself and started with the words “Once upon a time, Cornelius Puschmann began writing a blog”? Would you regard this as a factual statement? Possibly not, because you might associate the introduction “once upon a time..” with fairy tales and a constitutive feature of fairy tales is that they don’t describe real events.
Secondly, making a point by telling a story only works if the reader is ready to dig through the story to get to the point. One person who responded to the entry on Copyblogger wrote:
I just got bored of reading it after second paragraph (â€just get to the point alreadyâ€). So much for â€œmost powerfulâ€.
He wants the author to “get to the point already” because he expects an argument, not a story, and his expectations are triggered by the fact that this is a blog about marketing and not The Lord of the Rings. Of course you can chide such comments as demonstrating a lack of imagination, but that would mean missing the point: we perceive different modes of writing as conductive to certain purposes. When the context and the mode don’t match, we often assume that we’re being conned or manipulated. Both novelists and phishers love imitating a certain form of writing in order to manipulate their audience, even though the former does it to entertain while the latter just wants your credit card number. Conversely, we could also conclude that the author is simply a bad writer, or we could be frustrated by him not telling us what his point is but us having to infer his point. Inferring can be a lot of fun, unless we suspect that the point is not terribly interesting to begin with and that the story is simply a device to distract us from that problem.
This doesn’t mean that telling a story is a bad technique, but simply that the context should make the story plausible. Otherwise a bunch of things associated with the genre you are imitating will get in the way of what you are trying to say (imagine a legal text written like a poem or your toaster’s instruction manual in the form of a diary).
The argument that people these days are just too jaded or impatient to listen to a good story is just plain nonsense. People these days are simply familiar with a huge variety of text types and have an expert knowledge of the contexts in which they usually appear. Telling a good story in the right situation can be an incredibly effective way of evoking curiosity. In the wrong situation it’s more likely to make me think that you have a hidden agenda… not an entirely outlandish idea when we’re talking about marketing, is it?