The Law of Anecdotal Value


I’d like to share a commandment that I’ve lived by ever since I can remember — The Law of Anecdotal Value — thou shalt always take the route that provides the better story. This applies to life choices in general. It applies to professional situations. It applies to choices we make on a daily, weekly, even monthly basis.

I had first heard this years ago on NPR. It resonated with me and stuck with me ever since. Funny enough, I had pretty much been practicing this mantra since I can remember. Ever since I was little, I would always do the thing that stood out – I would always zig when everyone else zagged, and it usually provided myself, or my parents, with funny stories to share. In Kindergarten, I refused to wear anything else but my Snow White costume to school. I would refer to myself as Snow White, and I’m pretty sure I assigned a few short kids to be my dwarves. My 5-year old self somehow knew about this theory that I’d come to obsess over in my adult years. What I came to realize is this: Our family stories give us a sense of place and history. Our personal stories fill our lives with color, and provide depth and meaning. Everyone else’s stories connect us to a world that is not our own — without them, who are we?

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”–Muriel Rukeyser

As I went on to study design, and then venture into a career within advertising, and technology, I realized that the story is everything. It’s what connects us to others on an emotional level. It’s what helps us relate to one person, thousands, even sometimes millions of people. It defines us and separates us from the mundane. Stories take the banalities of everyday life, and make them meaningful. However, it is up to us to make those interesting, different, and sometimes scary decisions in order to be able to tell the stories that resonate with people.

The Law of Anecdotal Value (aka “the law”) has been by my side while having to make some pretty life-changing decisions. When I was thinking of leaving New York, where I grew up — my home — to move to Colorado for my dream job, I pressure-tested the idea against the “the law.” I had been going back and forth, weighing pros and cons, but once I remembered “the law,” it was a no-brainer. What was the story that I’d be proud to tell in ten years? What would make me a more well-rounded person? What would push me outside of my comfort zone? If it wasn’t for “the law,” I may have not urged myself to take those next steps.

Via Sagmeister & Walsh

“The law” has also been by my side when I was young and carefree, making spontaneous road trips to Vegas with friends and watching the sunrise on rooftops we’d have to scale buildings to access. I would live in the moment and sacrifice being tired or worn out, for living life to the extreme and having experiences I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t given myself the option to create stories.

DISCLAIMER: There is something to be said about the carefree, spontaneous, “let’s make stories!” lifestyle – you have to know that it is absolutely necessary to balance those crazy events with onsets of doing nothing and being bored. While choosing the path of the optimal story is definitely a rule that I’ve lived by and will continue to, it is important to note that it’s okay to not be creating stories ALL the time. After all, the great stories wouldn’t be so great unless they were contrasted with watching Netflix for 24 hours, ordering Chinese food, and not leaving the house. For all you know, you could end up falling in love with the delivery guy and living happily ever after.

After I graduated from college, I fell into the wonderful world of advertising. It sparked a passion in me to create experiences and tell stories that people can connect with on an emotional level. In this case, it was telling brand stories, but in ways that didn’t feel like “traditional” advertising. I was lucky enough to join Crispin Porter + Bogusky, in Boulder, where the work was known for breaking every single rule, crossing every line, and pushing every barrier. It was the early days of digital advertising, and the creatives at CPB were the pioneers. It was there where I learned how to tell brand stories in ways that engaged the consumer, and ultimately made them feel as though THEY were telling the story themselves. Campaigns like ‘Simpsonize Me’ did this. You would upload a photo of yourself and magically transform into a unique, customized Simpsons character. A campaign for Burger King called “Subservient Chicken” consisted of a site where a guy danced around in a chicken costume. It was up to the user to type something in, anything, and the chicken would perform that action. Those types of campaigns paved the landscape for a whole new genre of brand storytelling. They redefined the word “interactive.” Web banners and direct email campaigns were now things of the past. This new, innovative approach to advertising was the new “interactive” — telling stories in creative, whacky, unique ways, that put the user at the forefront of the experience.

One thing we did at Crispin to pressure-test our ideas was create mock press releases — what I thought to be a slight variation of “the law.” If we had an idea for a campaign, we would write up a press release for that campaign, as if it were to appear on AdAge or Creativity-Online. If the press-release sounded compelling, exciting, and news-worthy, then we knew we had a good idea and should probably explore it further. It was a great approach, and allowed us to frame the ideas in a way that anticipated success. The ones that were sub-par were immediately ousted by this process.

There are countless publishing and sharing tools that continue to shape our digital lives. We are living in an era where everyone has their own podium to voice their words to the world. How do we stand out from the noise? By creating experiences for ourselves (and our brands) that are story-worthy.

“The greatest story commandment? Make me care”—Andrew Stanton

Working at Twitter has been such an enriching experience for many reasons, one of the main ones being the ability to work on a product that enables the most compelling stories to be told freely around the world. The public and real time nature of Twitter allow for not only these great stories to be told, but for them to be told in REAL TIME. LIVE. IN THE MOMENT. Tell a good story, but then pair it with #ThisIsHappeningRightNow, and it adds a whole other level of excitement to the mix. Live-Tweeting makes you feel like you are a part of the story, as it’s happening. And that is something that is completely unique to Twitter and the people using it. The masses no longer have to be on the receiving, audience side. They can now be part of the story, as it unfolds.

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”—Ira Glass

The times have changed, but the same underlying truth remains — Good stories surprise us. They have interesting characters. They connect with us on an emotional and intellectual level. They stick with us and help us recall concepts and ideas in ways that numbers and graphs on a powerpoint slide don’t. So do yourself a favor — next time you are presented with a few different choices – choose the one that will give you the better story in the end. It will make life that much more interesting. And who knows, your story may travel the world by the next morning.

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