What Hasn’t Changed at Cannes: Five Universal Truths about Storytelling

June 21, 2017


I’m very lucky to be attending the 2017 Cannes Festival of Creativity. It’s my third time at Cannes and it’s interesting to see how the themes for each edition have changed to reflect the industry’s challenges du jour. This year diversity is big, as is the impact of AI and VR on how we communicate. But more fascinating is what hasn’t changed despite the proliferation of new channels and new ways to engage.

One such thing is the power of storytelling. Since caveman days it’s been used as a tool to persuade and get collective action. Today, behind the most brilliant technology innovations is usually a simple story of human ingenuity. A person faced with a problem they wanted or needed to solve. This story of how adversity was overcome and “happy ever after” achieved continues to captivate us, no matter how many times we hear it. Good story-telling transcends generations and borders. It is one of the most timeless ways to make a difference.

Here are five universal storytelling truths from Cannes.

  1. There is only memory with emotion: I heard a brilliant session from the creators of the 2016 Rio Olympics. They had the challenge of delivering a memorable opening that topped London and Beijing, but with a very scant budget. They were guided by two beliefs: 1) the heart has no limits, and 2) the Olympics were an opportunity to change Brazil’s national self-esteem. Their overarching theme was Beauty, inspired by Dostoyevsky’s quote: “Beauty can save the world.” What inspired their story-telling was a desire to communicate the power of beauty when you look deep within the culture of a nation. By immersing the audience in a highly sensorial production that showed Brazilians’ obsession with the enjoyment of life, their ability to make the most of things with very little means, and their tolerance and resilience, they created an experience that touched people to the very core.


  1. The frame is as important as the painting:  We all know how different frames and environments can completely change the way a painting is viewed. The Mona Lisa just wouldn’t be the same in a huge frame. The closeness of the setting draws us into experiencing the luminosity of her face in a more intimate way. This is the same with story-telling. The way we frame stories – or, more precisely, the context in which we tell them – has the potential to change how our audiences interpret the message. As PR professionals, we know this only too well. But it’s useful to think how we can more proactively use context to enhance the story-telling experience.


  1. Structure is a servant not a master: The overriding message was that you need one eye on the future and one on the past. Three-act story telling is still relevant but inspiration can also be taken from Greek tragedies and the popular novels of Dickensian times that were rolled out chapter by chapter.   In today’s online world, non-linear story telling also works. The most important thing is to know which structures are most effective for which medium but not be bound by them.


  1. The power of the mundane: Yungsuk Nah, Korea’sTV producer and director of hits such as Grandpas over Flowers, gave a wonderful presentation on the importance of looking at the everyday for inspiration. In searching for solutions we often overlook what is in front of us. By examining more closely the mundane and practical, we may find better answers and more potent human truths. This particular producer created a programme that featured a couple of urban guys living in the countryside. It looked at their efforts to create three meals a day from the produce that surrounded them. That’s all they did every day – cook three meals. He explained it was so successful because it was affordable fantasy – aspirational but within the reach of ordinary people. In the age of celebrity, it’s a good reminder of the power of ordinary stories to move and inspire.


  1. The medium is not the message but can enhance it: There was considerable discussion around the use of VR and AR in story-telling. What everyone agreed was that the technology is most effective when it inspires empathy at a very deep level. VR’s immersive nature can bring to life stories of challenge and adversity in a very potent way. This provides opportunity for traditional media such as New York Times, for example, to tell stories in new ways. They want to be an authority layer no matter where technology goes.

Best quote on diversity: We should look for what we have in common but fall in love with what is different. Regina Case