Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How Important is a Good Story?

Last week, I was privileged to sit in on the final presentations of the toy design students from a nearby college. All of the students were brilliant and imaginative, even while designing for a very particular need, under a variety of limitations.

The students presented their toy designs along with samples, videos, powerpoints, and cardboard cutouts. Some spoke so softly we strained to hear. Others charmed us with wide-eyed enthusiasm and humor.

However, what I have learned working in the toy industry is that it is not enough to put a design in front of someone and quietly say, 'Hey, check it out. I made this.' It is also not enough to bedazzle with glitter and sparkle or even toys that fly, levitate, know your name, or recognize your voice. You have to tell a story.

I'm not going to say that you should have a terrible product with no substance and sell it with a story (but you guys know that happens, right?) I do want to say that what works, time and time again, when we stand in front of management with sweaty palms during our own presentations, trying to sell something we've been working on for months is to say: We started here. We took this road. Then that one. We ended with this. Let me tell you how it works. (Cue the: wooow. Er. Sometimes...)

So as I sat through each presentation and gave feedback, all of my criticisms rarely had to do with the toy itself (a testament to how inventive their designs were). It always came down to the manner in which it was presented, the way thoughts were organized or facts laid out. Every toy, every project, has a life, a story, a character. Especially when you're explaining how a design actually works. Some students dismissed that entirely. Others knew the power of a simple beginning, middle, and end.

After each presentation I would stand ready to chime in and address the presentations that didn't, always about to say, "Try to start here and end up there." And most of the time, someone jumped in ahead of me. Engineers, designers, marketers. They would say: "It doesn't make sense. Try explaining it this way instead."

It struck me during these presentations because I've always believed story is key. But then again, I write content for a living. Forgive me for how elitist and arrogant this sounds but, in recent months, I've been put in one situation after another in my professional life where I have seriously questioned whether a good story means anything to anyone else (maybe you've been there too?) These presentations helped me realize that it does.

Turns out people crave a good story in many different industries beyond publishing, film, or television. In fact, they demand it.


  1. This is so interesting. What a cool job :) I only buy toys for my kids that encourage creativity. I want them to make up their own stories.

  2. This is really interesting! And yes, sometimes the entertainment industry plies us with the same old formulaic stories again and again, but (sorry to say it) those stories work for a lot of people.

    I never saw Avatar, but I've heard it said that it's the same story as Dances With Wolves. Or Pocahontas. Or Fern Gully. Or all three.

    I guess a lot of people like that story!

  3. I must say, your job sounds incredibly interesting!

  4. I agree...your job is awesome! Now how would this relate to the act of publishing? I mean, of course we're selling stories themselves, but what about the story of publishing, if that makes sense? Do you think that would help things sell better?

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)