People Don’t Click

Storytelling is the new science


My name is David Siegel, and I read books. There — I said it. I read whole books, from cover to cover, and I can tell you the very last lines of many of them. I even highlight passages and thoughts on my Kindle, make notes, and go back and re-read! Moreover, I read almost exclusively non-fiction (the horror!), I’m quite picky about what I read, and I know that at least a third of all book reviews are fake.

While that puts me in the top 1% of readers, I enjoy reading books far more than writing the stupid things. My first book, which took me (and my production team) 10 weeks to write, lay out, and ship remains to this day Amazon.com’s longest-running #1 bestseller. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was translated into sixteen languages. My third book made it onto the BusinessWeek bestseller list. My most recent book took two years (and two publishers) to produce, two years of hard promoting, and sold a few thousand copies (and was translated into Portuguese!). The economics stopped working because people stopped reading. Given that the most-read piece on Medium so far is one with mostly photos of a grocery store, I’d better get to my point quickly.

I had lunch with a venture capitalist recently who said he “looked at” my web site, but he didn’t have time to read it. I’ve sent dozens of people my “must read” book list, and no one even takes the time to say I’m crazy to suggest reading whole books anymore. We can see it in the web interfaces we see today, which seem to have taken over.

The Square Format

Most start-ups and many companies use what I call the “Square” format, because it copies Square.com, which probably copied it from someone else: wide blurry images with punchy headlines and very few choices (remind you of anything?). Wall to wall photography that looks pretty but adds no editorial value (The Medium.com is the message?). Oh, they do something — don’t get me wrong — they tap into your subconscious, which associates memories and moods brought up by the photos with the content they’re presenting on the site. Now we’re moving from blurry photos to blurry videos sucking up bandwidth behind the message.

The Slide Format

Very often, you see a web site where the “top stories” slide in from the right, stick around a few seconds, and then the new one slides in to take its place. This is so common, I’m not sure why it isn’t built into WordPress already (maybe it is). Why do sites do this? Because they have learned that people don’t click. The general rule is that you lose half your audience with each click. Sure enough, check your logs and you’ll see fewer than 25% of all visitors have clicked twice after arriving at your web site. So the new thing is to bring the web site to the viewer.

Does it work? I don’t have any fundamental research, but my guess (from seeing the growth of this approach on web sites that count) is that it really does. While it’s not ideal, it is effective. It’s true that good writing and good design helps people get through your web site (I imagine people click around TED.com more than they click around FT.com), but it’s also a sign that people don’t like to read.

The Video Format

Since people don’t read, stop giving them text. Give them short videos and talking heads instead. This is what most start-ups do these days. They have very few words but want you to click and watch their “how it works” video. It’s a wonder the videos don’t start by themselves — in most cases you actually have to click once to get them going.

Since people don’t click, why not have 4-5 pages and put a video on each page? Who needs words, when you can talk directly to your visitors? I’m starting to see more “video first” web sites.

All of this isn’t to say that your interface shouldn’t do this. It probably should. The Web started as a “lean forward” medium in the 1990s, in contrast to network television. Now that the late majority has arrived, it has become much more of a “lean back” delivery vehicle, which advertisers love. Pretty soon you’ll just say “that’s interesting,” and the browser will show you more about whatever your eyes were tracking when you said it.

The Illusion of Control

I’m not going to tell you what to do about your interface. I used to do that. I’m writing to make you aware that you’re time slicing and passively consuming and driving while texting, and composing your status updates while you’re doing things in the real world, and it’s leading somewhere. We’re all consuming more and learning less. All our tweets and status updates and texts and Instagrams and photobombs and likes and headlines — and now even whole web sites — flow by as we sort of pay attention and sort of don’t. When we are with our good friends, we’re texting our other friends; and when we’re with our other friends, we’re texting our good friends. Soon we’ll have apps that will just text our replies for us. Not only are we leaning back more, we’re getting lazier and dumber.

Bit by bit, link by link, we’re wrapping the chains around our own ankles. We think we are making conscious choices. We think we are aware of our surroundings and what is happening to us. We think our memories reflect what really happened. We think we can rely on experts to give us advice. We don’t question published academic journals. We like to think we are right far more than we actually are. And we think we are in control.

One Weird Trick for Waking Up

So here’s my point: we’re letting this happen. We’re electing the tallest, best-looking candidates rather than thinking about the issues. We trust Google to bring us quality content, not realizing that most of that content was created specifically for Google, with the required keyword ratios. We click on any headline that offers us <a number between 5 and 9> Tips for Successful <something we want>. We’re clicking on random shit and spending our time reconsuming the same stuff our Facebook friends are. We’re connected, but we’re not connecting. Candy Crush and Angry Birds are winning. And critical thinking is losing.

Today, 100% of marketing, 99% of what we call “news,” and most of what we call “science” is simply a story someone wants you to consume, because it benefits them. Marketers know your brain is built to learn through stories. Storytelling is the new science. The facts and the context are irrelevant, because we devote so little time to understanding. The Google-driven Web, plus Facebook, Twitter, Kik, and our short-attention-span check-in mobile lifestyle is the medium advertisers and marketers have been dreaming about. People don’t click. The age of storytelling is just beginning.

I’m not saying “storytelling is the new science” because I want to make you aware of marketing analytics — I’m saying cherrypicking and storytelling have replaced the practice and reporting of the scientific method far more than most people realize. Science itself is broken.

If you care about this and want to change it, I suggest you spend four entire hours of your life watching an amazing documentary by the BBC entitled The Century of the Self. In fact, have some people over, turn off your devices, and just watch it together for four hours on the biggest screen you have. You’re going to be a different person after you watch it. I want you to be. I want you to fucking share the hell out of it. I want it to go viral. I want you to hammer your friends (and “friends”— people you don’t know and never will) into watching it and thinking about it. And discussing it. And maybe even doing something about it.

I don’t expect anyone to read this far, but if you have and you want to learn more, come to Business Agility Workshop and click around a bit.

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