The power of simple stories


“I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman

In an era of visual innovation, virtual reality, second screening and social engagement it was a documentary series from 1990 that reminded me that simple storytelling, using the rules that have always stood true, is still one of the most powerful ways of communicating with an audience. 

The Ken Burns Vietnam documentary has been one of the most watched shows on PBC, BBC and now Netflix which is slightly surprising given the anachronistic, if effortless way he tells a story using only the most basic techniques. In a time poor, disposable age he takes more than 17 hours of television to explore a subject in detail with no re-enactments, CGI, special effects, graphs, charts, infographics or interactive gimmicks.

Simplicity is sophistication

Watching such a powerful and interesting story led me to one of his earlier documentaries about the American Civil war which despite being even more basic in its telling attracted 39 million viewers and became the most watched programme on PBS when it first aired in the United States.

Here the simplicity (and the contrast to most modern storytelling) is even starker but I think all the stronger for it. Despite all the tools and tricks available to us in modern communications a strong story being well told is still the most powerful tool in our arsenal.

The nine part documentary series about the 19th century conflict uses letters, diaries, black and white archive photographs and little else to tell the story of a conflict that ravaged a continent and cost more than 850,000 lives.  Incredibly there is hardly any footage (events took place between 1861 – 65) so the story relies on an incredible soundtrack and more than 16,000 period paintings and still photographs which Burns pans and zooms across to hold the viewers attention.

Individual and emotive stories

For context he uses brief talking head footage from a few leading historians but in the main he uses the emotional, individual stories of people involved in the conflict by simply reading quotes or extracts from their letters and diaries. This probably sounds pretty dry so far which makes the experience of watching it even more striking when compared to all the usual information we’re bombarded with every day.

It comes down to simplicity (which I’ve blogged about before here) but it also helps that everyone in 1860s America seems to look like a modern day proto-hipster or is called something like Jedediah Hotchkiss, Pleasant Unthank or Stonewall Jackson .

As well as being an utterly compelling body of work there are plenty of lessons for us to take from it on how we tell our own stories as communicators.

#1 Killer facts
The series is peppered with these jaw dropping, killer facts which provide some real context. For example, he tells us that in the last year of peace before the civil war one in 7 Americans was a slave. We learn that more Americans died in the civil war than in all their other wars combined until Vietnam. September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest day in US history with double the number of casualties of D-Day, 82 years later. It’s important to know the killer facts for your own work and how to use them in your stories.

#2 Individual stories
The scope of the five year story of the war is probably too broad to tell as a subject so he uses the personal stories from individuals on both sides. We learn that people are people regardless of the time or circumstance which makes the stories much more genuine, understandable and relatable.

#3 Emotion
We know that emotions are far more powerful than facts in terms of storytelling and communications. He often focuses on how the protagonists are feeling and this is incredibly effective and well done. If you can get through this eve-of-battle letter written by union solider Sullivan Ballou to his wife with a dry eye then you’re a better man than me (click here – stay with it until the kicker right at the end)

#3 Choose the messengers carefully
He chooses the historians and the characters to explore carefully just as we need to select the right people to deliver key messages. Think about authenticity, status and who will be most listed to by each audience.

#4 what makes a good story?
In understanding this I often fall back on the old journalistic acronym about a good story being about TRUTH. Trouble, relevant, unusual, timely and human.

#5 the humans
Human stories are absolutely key to the success of any communications. We hear about the things that really matter to people during this time like missing home or wanting better food. There’s also some fascinatingly eccentric characters, with utterly contrasting personalities. I was fascinated by the clash between the pragmatic General Grant and the honorable but flawed Robert E Lee (who for some reason reminded me of 1990s-era Kevin Keegan).

#6 Keep it simple
sometimes the story is so good it doesn’t need embellishment – the simplest way to tell the story is the best way.

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