We are storytellers. At the heart of what we do in advertising is the creation of a story that we want the listener or viewer to relate to, interact with, or become part of.
Over more than 20 years, I’ve developed a fairly strong sense for the ways to take on this challenge and the talent and tools I can tap into to accomplish it. On the ever-moving technology curve, we have so many sensory cues from all our electronic devices that there seems to be little to do without them.
But my sense of storytelling took on a whole new meaning when I was completely off the grid in a remote northern part of the Serengeti in Tanzania, with no electronics and no way to recharge anything …I sat listening to a Maasai woman tell stories of her childhood, in Swahili (or maybe the Maasai language, Maa). I was mesmerized.
This woman, 65-years-old perhaps (they don’t keep track of years), had a nearly shaved head, earlobes stretched by a lifetime of large, heavy and beautifully beaded hanging earrings. She wore wide, flat bead and wire Maasai necklaces, a flowing print wrap of a shapeless dress. And I couldn’t miss her life-experienced sparkling small eyes, her generous smile with large white imperfect teeth, and her large hands and long fingers. She was tall, as most Maasai seem to be.
That was how she looked. How she spoke was something else.
The only words I understood were the ones that could not be translated by a young, elegantly tall and graceful Maasai translator named Johnson, robed in their signature red draped cloth. They weren’t actually words. They were sounds. She told her story by braiding sounds of emotional expression, animals, snoring, breathlessness into her sentences as if they were words.
“My father had me tend the cows mooo, but I kept losing ahhhoooueeee them because I would hachhh fall asleep!”
I can’t replicate it. And it wasn’t just sounds. She was using her body to tell the story as well. I watched her hands waving, clapping and tapping her punctuation. Everything in a continuous flow. She was entirely immersed in the telling, knowing that words, alone, weren’t enough. In fact, using words, alone, was inconceivable.
In a business where we work hard and spend more money in an hour than many Tanzanians make in a month, using every tool and hired talent at our disposal to create the perfect sound to convey the perfect message, none of it is as real as this woman. In our culture where the show can usurp the story (i.e. the recent Oscars on tv), we confuse the two.
Today, I will focus my energies on what I can bring to the creation of a thirty-second television commercial. And the quest that’s more reinforced in me than ever is the need to be the story you’re telling or you just can’t tell it well enough.
Do you know what makes a story work for you? I’d like to know.
Postscript: Ironically, as I drove on the Mass Pike to work this rainy grey morning, the huge WGBH screen that faces the Pike showed elephants foraging across a sunny grassy plain and it instantly transported me back to the Serengeti as I approached the express lane toll. I always go back. Hard to explain in words. That’s another story.