What do Stories do? Act II: This American Life’s “Put a Bow on It”

In two recent posts I explored the role of storytelling in museums, and particularly in museum exhibitions. In Should Exhibits Tell Stories I questioned whether storytelling provokes the response museums hope for from visitors. A few weeks later, in What do Stories do?, I interviewed cognitive psychologist Lane Beckes, who discussed the psychological impact of storytelling and its relationship to learning.

A week after I posted the interview with Lane, This American Life aired “Put a Bow on It,” which explores some of the same things. As Ira Glass describes the episode:

So today’s program is about situations where the facts are not enough by themselves. You need to still figure out what story best goes with those facts.

But who does this work? When does storytelling become marketing? When does it provide needed context or framing? When is it intrusive?

For those interested in storytelling, I recommend listening to the full podcast. For those without the time or patience to listen, here are quotes from the first two acts of the episode, with their context.

In the first story, the fast food chain Hardee’s is developing new foods, and it turns out that the name of the food – its story – is as important as the taste. The story’s producer, Zoe Chace, and Brad Haley, Hardee’s Chief Marketing Officer, discuss a sandwich with mashed potatoes, gravy, onion straws, cheese, and chicken:

Zoe: What they’re looking for is the story they’re going to tell to explain why the weirdness makes sense. And it’s got to be a pretty good story– simple, punchy. Half ironic wouldn’t hurt. That is just as hard as coming up with the sandwich…. And sometimes they get stuck, like when they put pulled pork on a burger– not the most appetizing picture the way I just described it. And Brad says it didn’t test well.

Brad: And we kept trying different names. We had called it the pulled pork burger or the southern burger. And finally, I think Bruce had the idea of calling it the Memphis Barbecue Burger. And we tried that and it worked incredibly well.

A name – a story – made something unappetizing suddenly appetizing. Story as marketing tool – something used to promote a product, rather than to understand it.

How do the titles of exhibits change how they are received? What makes a good exhibit title? Or a program name? 

In the second act of “Put a Bow on It,” the musician and writer Ahamefule Oluo is trying to understand Sam Oluo, the father he never knew. As part of this effort, he gathers his family together. When his mother and stepbrother tell stories about his father his sister gets upset, and says:

Maybe this is why I’m not good at these sorts of conversations in groups because I feel like everybody tries to make their personal reality everyone else’s reality.

This is a story about the need to create one’s own story.

What information do exhibits need to provide? How can stories support visitors’ exploration of a topic, and when do they stop visitors from creating their own analysis or meaning-making? 

Listen to “Put a Bow on It,” and let me know what you think.


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