The comeback of long-form storytelling
In 1985, Neil Postman published his groundbreaking work, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, he argues that attention span decreases as the prevalence of technology increases.
Of course, his theories were published over two decades before the appearance of everyone’s favorite scapegoats for the “death of the attention span”:
- 280-character Tweets high on wit, low on substance
- YouTube commercials designed for communicating in five seconds or less
- Webpages that only retain users for 23 seconds
And it’s true. Attention spans have diminished. But it’s not the ONLY truth. As business guru Robert Kiyosaki says, a coin has three sides: heads, tails, and the edge.
I hope to show you how to stand on the edge of the coin, a vantage point from which you can see both heads and tails. The edge is where the greater story takes shape.
While I would not argue against a “diminished attention span theory,” I would also propose that we are increasingly drawn toward long-form stories. Everywhere I look, I see the power of long-form story drawing people into a powerful and engaging experience.
Why Story? From Lascaux to Massachusetts
Stories are and have always been an integral part of the human experience. The Lascaux cave paintings in France, estimated to be some 17,000 years old, are perhaps our earliest examples. Tales of epic hunts and mystic rituals are depicted on their walls. Imagine these early humans gathering together in dark caves with flickering lights to relive glories of the past and hold hope for good days ahead.
Our ability to construct narratives and develop identities through the power of story makes humans unique among all animals. A 1944 study at Massachusetts College underscores this point exceptionally well. In the study, 34 adults were shown a short film of geometric shapes moving across the screen.
One participant reported that he saw shapes moving across the screen. The other 33 adults came up with stories to explain who the shapes were, what they were feeling, where they were going, why they were moving, etc. The desire to impart a narrative on an experience is essential to who we are as human beings.
Attention spans are increasing with the right stories
As I wrote earlier, I see an alternate truth that goes along with the diminished attention span theory. While, yes, technology makes it easy for our minds to be entertained without depth, it is also and simultaneously true that our attention spans are increasing when we are presented with the right stories.
Disney, Apple, and Netflix have all launched long-form stories with episodes easily running 50–60 minutes or more. (The average length of an episode of Sherlock is 88.3 minutes.) And does this multi-billion dollar industry opt for long-form content because it receives less viewers?
I doubt it.
Long-form content is seeing a resurgence. And it’s not just happening in TV. Joe Rogan’s podcast (“The Joe Rogan Experience”) averages two hours and thirty minutes. Rogan’s podcast receives 1.5+ billion listens per year, generating as much as $100M in revenue.
“People’s attention spans are too short?”
I don’t know if Joe Rogan would see it that way.
When the story is great and the message is relevant, long-form content engages the mind. Long-form content provides an opportunity for people to engage more deeply with one of our oldest and most primal forms of communication: the spoken, narrative tradition.
Observers become participants through long-form story
Not only can long-form content edify and entertain. Many of these conversation-based pieces also provide a space for the observer to become a participant. People long for interaction — perhaps now more than ever — and these in-the-round style podcasts and YouTube channels (to name just a couple of mediums) allow the audience to feel a deeper sense of connection with the creators.
In a sense, I see long-form content taking us home. We’re getting closer to our roots, closer to our true sense of purpose, closer to our community, closer to a fulfilling sense of connectedness. When we engage with a long-form story, we become active participants in this broader narrative of what it means to be human.
Have our attention spans shrunk? Probably so. But have we also increased our capacity to engage in a powerful, long-form story? Yes. And recognizing that truth is what it means to stand on the edge of the coin.
So where do you go from here? While it would be nice to think that this shift toward story is the natural result of some collective goodwill discovered by advertisers worldwide… I’m more inclined to think the shift was forced upon brands.
Let’s face it: these last few decades, we’ve all become somewhat jaded toward advertising. Not only have we been constantly bombarded with consumer-oriented messaging… but the times and places where these messages have been able to reach us have grown exponentially.
We’ve been sold to at every possible time and place an advertiser could weasel their way into. Take your eyes up from this screen, and I bet you can find at least one advertisement around you. Whether you’re on the L-Train in Brooklyn, a beach in Cabo, or your living room couch… you are almost guaranteed to be the object of some pesky, intruding advertiser.
We’re sick of it. And advertisers know it. So, what do they do? They turn to that human element that resonates with everyone: story.
In the ‘Age of Influence’, story is everything. Sure, “storytelling” is a buzzword in today’s marketing culture, but it’s a buzzword for a reason: it works. Today’s great brands are great storytellers. They know how to weave a narrative that’s true and authentic to who they are.
So where does a brand, company, or agency start in order to tell a really good story? Empathy and understanding should be the natural starting point for anyone who wants to truly understand what it means to communicate in a way that enriches and fulfills an audience.
As Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says, “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”
I echo Stephen’s advice. But I would take it a step further and say, not only can empathy enable us to scratch itches, and solve problems, but it also enables us to tell really good stories that people will listen to and become fans of when you begin to see the world through their eyes first.