Okay, I get that you might be tempted to think that this post is about some frivolous, three-year-old article about a show you may or may not have seen. You might even be tempted to think there’s nothing here of use to you.
Even if that’s you, please reconsider.
Because there is a big—HUGE—idea lurking underneath it all that I believe explains what’s wrong with most business storytelling and messaging, not just what went wrong with Game of Thrones.
It may even explain what’s wrong with your business storytelling and messaging – and a lot of the advice out there about how to improve it. So even if you’ve never seen the show, read on. Please.
The real reason fans hate the last season of Game of Thrones
First, note that this article is in Scientific American, so it’s not exactly a light piece of reading, nor is it in a frivolous publication. Also note that the author, Zeynep Tufekci, is not an entertainment writer, nor a storytelling guru. She’s “an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, whose research revolves around how technology, science, and society interact.”
Second, note that there are definitely spoilers for the last season of Game of Thrones here, but (a) it turns out people actually like spoilers (check that out for a still-useful swipefile article—now 10 years old!) and (b) I think the underlying ideas here are important enough to spoil some plot points. I’ll do my best to skim over spoilers in this post, even if they’re revealed in more detail in the main article.
Third, and this is mostly just a nod to the random nature of my brain: I’m only watching Game of Thrones now (as of this writing, we’re partway through Season 5, even though we know this “bad” season still looms ahead of us). The funny thing is that I started watching GOT not because it is a great example of epic storytelling—which it is—but because GOT-related characters and places show up in crossword puzzles a lot. I got annoyed that I didn’t regularly know the answers to something the editors considered to be common (crossword) pop culture knowledge, so I started watching. Because of that, I got interested in why people were so up in arms about the last season, and here we are.
With those out of the way, let’s roll up our sleeves and dig in, shall we?
- Your first hint at the big idea is in the subhead, which pays off the question raised by the title (“What is the real reason people hated that last season so much?”): “It’s not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological.”
- Then there’s a bit of context-setting: how 17 million people watched the start of the last season…and that the vast majority ended up “loathing” it. The author also notes how there are already plenty of opinions out there about where the series and its creators and writers went wrong.
- She notes that the reasons people have come up with so far are valid [a great inoculator against reactance], but superficial: “new and inferior writers, shortened season, too many plot holes.”
- But then, Tufekci delivers her big thesis—not just about GOT, but about our “storytelling culture in general: we don’t really know how to tell sociological stories.” [She leaves out the definition of those kinds of stories for now, but hang tight, it’s coming right up.]
- She then gives the additional context of:
- (a) how rare “sociological and institutional” stories are in a Hollywood dominated by the “psychological and individual.” [The same could be true of business storytelling advice, wouldn’t you say?]
- (b) the last season was the one for which the writers didn’t have George R. R. Martin’s novels (all told in the sociological style) to rely on.
- The loss of that reference material meant that the show’s main writers reverted to the dominant Hollywood storytelling style—psychological. She suggests that even if the writers stuck with the main narrative points Martin gave to them, the shift in the “narrative lane” would be enough to explain what happened to the show.
- She closes out by noting that the shift is important “because whether we tell our stories primarily from a sociological or psychological point of view has great consequences for how we deal with our world and the problems we encounter.”
- Tufekci also teases us with the broader application of that importance: “Our inability to understand and tell sociological stories is one of the key reasons we’re struggling with how to respond to the historic technological transition we’re currently experiencing with digital technology and machine intelligence.” [Mmm…tasty!]
Before she gets there, though, she uses GOT to illustrate the difference between the two types of stories.
Two storytelling styles at work
Here’s a place where there are major spoilers in the original article, so I’m going to gloss over the details of the next couple of paragraphs, and summarize for you why they’re there.
Why are they there? So the author can acknowledge that some of the problems with the last season weren’t just the result of the writers switching from one storytelling style to the other, but the fact that the writers were “bad” even at the new (and arguably more familiar) style. Too many plot holes, too many convenient twists of fate, and too many shifts in the basic character traits of even the main characters. [I’ll also add from another recent swipefile, the sudden introduction of “fast travel.”]
So what was the problem?
- Tufekci suggests that one notable feature of GOT gives us a clue: the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, which started in the very first season and continued throughout. As she puts it, “The story moved on; many characters did not.”
- That was a clear signal that GOT was not the typical type of story Hollywood [or business messaging] produces, the psychological, “where a single charismatic and/or powerful individual, along with his or her internal dynamics [carries] the whole narrative and explanatory burden.”
- Now we get the definition of sociological storytelling: “where the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.”
- That “inner life” takes the form of characters aligning “their internal narrative…with their incentives, justifying and rationalizing their behavior along the way.” [Doesn’t that sound a lot like how your current customers and clients behave?!]
- The author argues that without that larger context of sociological storytelling, we’re left “bereft of deeper comprehension of events and history.”
- She supports this with a pretty compelling example, that “understanding Hitler’s personality alone will not tell us much about the rise of fascism.” The sociological conditions that gave rise to fascism arguably could have allowed any demagogue to come to power in Hitler’s place. [You can imagine, then, that she has a pretty clear response to the thought exercise of “Would you kill baby Hitler?” Answer: no, “because it would very likely not matter much.”]
- While she doesn’t say so explicitly, I infer from this section that fans of GOT responded positively to the opportunity to see and understand an intricate web of character reactions to events surrounding them. That’s significant because of where she goes next: the very human “bias for the individual as the locus of agency in interpreting our own everyday life and the behavior of others,” something known as the fundamental attribution error.
- You’ve seen this plenty in your own life: where we tend to “seek internal, psychological explanations for the behavior of those around us while making situational excuses for our own.”
- That interplay between a more macro-level narrative eye and viewers’ own interpretations of characters’ motivations sets up a “tension between internal stories and desires, psychology and external pressures, institutions, norms, and events” that was basically viewer catnip.
- The resulting “rich tapestries of psychology [and] behavior” created characters who were “neither saintly nor fully evil at any one point.” [You know, just like the rest of us…]
This next point is so important I’m going to set it off by itself:
- The sociological storytelling GOT used in its first seven seasons meant “you could understand why even the characters undertaking evil acts were doing what they did, how their good intentions got subverted, and how incentives structured behavior. The complexity made it much richer than a simplistic morality tale, where unadulterated good fights with evil.” [This is a hint as to why I think this distinction in storytelling styles is so important. That’s especially true in B2B storytelling, which is not only aimed at institutions more than individuals, it is by definition complex and rife with competing forces and structures.]
- We then get the deeper implications of what sociological storytelling allows audiences to do: “it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices.”
- She argues that that ability—which sociological storytelling allows us to do for both “good” and “bad” characters—allows us more options for finding better outcomes: “If we can better understand how and why characters make their choices, we can also think about how to structure our world that encourages better choices for everyone. The alternative is an often futile appeal to the better angels of our nature. It’s not that they don’t exist, but they exist along with baser and lesser motives. The question isn’t to identify the few angels but to make it easier for everyone to make the choices that, collectively, would lead us all to a better place.” [Again, I would argue that this last point is exactly what great messaging is designed to do… which means we need the kind of storytelling—sociological—that allows us to do that.]
Tufekci then introduces another game-changing HBO show, The Wire, as an additional example of sociological storytelling and this interplay of understanding character actions. Since that’s a supporting point, and not part of her main argument, I’m going to skip over it here. (But if you’ve never seen The Wire, and you’re interested in this idea of sociological storytelling, hie yourself over to HBO and give that a good watch as soon as you can.)
The whole next section of the article is one big spoiler for GOT’s Season 8, so I’m again going to skip those details here. It’s a really interesting section, though—it starts with the author noting that Season 8 didn’t kill off major characters to start (a signal the storytelling style had shifted to character-driven, psychological storytelling). Tufekci also explains how some of the choices made in the actual Season 8 wouldn’t—or even couldn’t—have been made had the original sociological style of storytelling stuck.
But then Tufekci brings it home, teasing “this essay is more than about one TV show with dragons.”
Why sociological storytelling matters
Tufekci expresses frustration that in her own area of “research and writing, the impact of digital technology and machine intelligence on society,” so many narratives focus on individuals like “Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos.” It’s not wrong to focus on their personalities, she says, they do matter. Notably, though, their personalities matter “only in the context of business models, technological advances, the political environment, (lack of) meaningful regulation, the existing economic and political forces that fuel wealth inequality and lack of accountability for powerful actors, geopolitical dynamics, societal characteristics and more.”
She poses an interesting question: even as it makes sense to consider who (and their personality) might make the “best” leader of an organization, does it also make sense to expect that personality alone would dictate that person’s success? Or would it make more sense to understand fully the “structures, incentives and forces that shape how they and their companies act in this world” and make a choice based on that, instead? [I vote for option B there. Within the context of preexisting structures and forces, a single person/ality can only do so much.]
So why do we tell psychological stories so much more often? Tufekci’s answer: because “the [psychological] story is easier to tell as we gravitate toward identifying with the hero or hating the antihero, at the personal level. We are, after all, also persons!” I would add: it’s also much easier storytelling advice to give, especially if you (over) rely on the classic quest or hero myth form.
But I’ll repeat something I note in my book: not all stories are hero myths. More importantly for business messaging: not all situations call for a single hero—they call for structural change. Change that’s often impossible for a single person to effect.Not all situations call for a single hero — they call for structural change. Click To Tweet
In those instances, you need a different kind of story: one that examines the larger forces at work, and makes the case for how an individual can best respond to those forces to achieve whatever goal they seek.
So, yes, good news, even though I didn’t realize it when I built it, the Red Thread helps you tell those kinds of stories, too. Why? Because it isn’t based on one kind of story form. The Red Thread is based on the elements of stories that drive change and transformation—and those can be internal to a person, or external to a society or organization. That’s why I think I may have the kernel of an idea for a next book: something that helps you identify when you need which kind of storytelling, and how you can use the Red Thread to build whichever story will drive the change you’re looking for.
As Tufekci notes in her conclusion, “well-run societies don’t need heroes, and the way to keep terrible impulses in check isn’t to dethrone antiheroes and replace them with good people.”
We need to find better answers—your answers—and make sure people know how to put them in place.You need a different kind of story: one that examines the larger forces at work, and makes the case for how an individual can best respond to those forces to achieve whatever goal they seek. Click To Tweet
Please note that many of the links are affiliate links, which means if you buy a thing I link to, I get a percentage of the cost, and then donate it to charity.
Like this content? Be the first to get it delivered directly to your inbox every week (along with a lot of other great content, including my #swipefiles). Yes, please send me the Red Thread newsletter, exclusive information, and updates.