How Stories Help Us See the Present and Future
Do you remember your dreams? Lately I’ve had a few vivid ones that I’ve rushed to write up as soon as I awoke. Both involved transitions in my job situation. One dream, shortly after I left a full-time job, ended with me on a futuristic train headed for parts unknown. Another, as I was beginning work as a marketing consultant, showed me saying smart things to a group of executives about a favorite baseball player of mine.
Dreams are stories in progress. Our brains use a rich palette of imagery, associations, puns, and memories to craft scenes that move forward in time. Whereas a real-life writer might change the name or look of a character and go back to change earlier pages, our dream-making brains don’t have that back-editing function. They change on the fly—one of the things that makes dreams seem so bizarre. A friend suddenly becomes a tiger. Yikes! But in our dreams we are actually making things up as we go along, and we don’t have the writer’s ability to go back in the story and set up the changes. (By the way, for my comments here, I’m indebted to the work of Bert O. States, in Dreaming and Storytelling, Cornell University Press, 1993.)
The Purpose of Dreams
What is the purpose of our dreams? Scholars differ on whether our brains use dreams to solve problems or if they’re just having fun. Either way, the resulting stories, though they may seem bizarre, often illustrate key aspects of our present and future.
My consulting dream took a snapshot of the present moment and translated it into content that I resonated with emotionally. As a lifelong baseball fan, I found it easy to talk about what I knew, and my clients were impressed. In a nervous transition, my dream-brain was reminding me that I had a lifetime of knowledge—not about baseball, but about communication strategy and messaging—that clients would find helpful.
A half-year earlier, my dream-brain gave me a glimpse of the future—not in details but in a gleaming train headed happily to a new adventure. Of course there’s a lot of lore about dreams foretelling the future. While I’d allow for some divine insight there, I think it’s mostly just good prognostication. Our brains rummage through the current data we have and predict future outcomes.
I’m fascinated by dreams because they take us to the heart of what stories are and what they do for us. Here I see two powerful functions of stories—whether dreamt or crafted.
Stories help us understand the present moment.
In one of Shakespeare’s best-known works, Hamlet creates a story—a short drama—to reveal the crime of his usurping uncle.
. . . The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
That story exposes the illegitimacy of the king’s reign. In other cases, a story might bring hope rather than guilt. People might gain inspiration from the story of someone else’s courageous act, but there is always the need to bring it back to the present moment. The situation that Joan of Arc or Alexander Hamilton or Susan B. Anthony or Neil Armstrong faced is just like this moment in your life. Will you respond as they did?
History can help us understand the present, but so can story-like imagery. I recently used a sort of “living parable” with a group I was teaching. We were discussing an issue over which there is great disagreement in today’s culture. I pointed to four people sitting across from me and assigned the roles. The two in the middle were friends who liked each other but disagreed on this issue. The two on the outside were playing the roles of extremists, who flooded the internet and airwaves with vitriol against the other side. I said, “You two in the middle need to have a caring and reasonable conversation, but you can’t hear each other because your teammates, on both sides, are shouting too loud.”
This quasi-dramatic treatment helped them understand the present moment in a new and helpful way.
Stories help us imagine the future.
The best examples of this come from political campaigns. We often assume that a race is won by the candidate who does a better job of establishing his or her qualifications. But, at least at the presidential level, that hasn’t been true for at least sixty years. The question is: Which candidate provides a more compelling vision of the future?
It’s also interesting to think through the cinematic versions of the future over the last century or so, from Fritz Lang’s silent classic, Metropolis (made in 1927 and set in a distant 2026), to Blade Runner (in both its versions, set in 2019 and 2049). Hundreds of films have imagined life in the future. The visions are often bleak, but sometimes pleasant, and occasionally prescient. Buck Rogers went to the moon long before NASA did. Dick Tracy had a video phone in his watch—unthinkable . . . until now.
How we use stories
So what does this have to do with marketing? How do your stories help customers see their present and future? Well, you can use your messaging to help them define where they are and where they’re headed.
They’re in a struggle. They have problems getting what they want. You can use your full palette of imagery and associations (as in a dream) to exalt the importance of that current moment. It’s never “just” a car, an insurance policy, an adjustable wrench, or a pint of ice cream they want; it’s adventure, family security, capability, or well-deserved joy.
And you can help them glimpse a future in which they realize their dreams, at least some of them, thanks to your product or service. We can help you prevail in this important struggle and emerge more like the person you want to become.
Randy Petersen, founder of Petersen Creative Enterprises, is a veteran author, playwright, teacher, speaker, and consultant.