Ken Burns Explains Transcendent Stories

Ken Burns knows how to tell a story. The award-winning filmmaker of the epic Civil  War and Baseball series on PBS tell broad, sweeping stories about history with a mix of facts, perspective, anecdote and testimony.

Burns is hyperaware of his craft. And he’s also hyperaware of his signature style and the strengths and weaknesses of the format. And he freely admits that storytelling is a craft of manipulation, which undeniable of any story.

Every story—fiction, film, novel, editorial, news—is manipulation just for the simple fact that someone has to decide what to include and what to exclude. Beyond that, there’s the level of detail, the order of information, and the emotional elements that make a story come alive. A number of little white lies, cleverly ordered, can add up to a great story.

Burns has a new documentary, The Dust Bowl, debuting on PBS in November. (Here’s a quick USA Today preview and a trailer.) In a fascinating documentary about the documentarian on The Atlantic website, Burns discusses his craft. In this short film, Burns emphasizes a number of story elements that create lasting emotional resonance with audiences.

For one, Mr. Burns reminds us that there are many different kinds of truth. There are factual truths, emotional truths, truths about history, and truths about human nature.

He also cleverly postulates that 1 + 1 = 3. That two pieces of information put together add up to a larger context of truth, whether emotional or merely cognitive. It’s not a tired cliché because it’s universal: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Today’s brands have a nearly boundless opportunity to tell more compelling, authentic stories, and reveal deep truths about the things that matter most to consumers. But these truths are bound by certain fundamentals that make them resonate. For instance, Burns’ urges: “Do it sincerely.”

Sincerity may be more valued today than ever. Consumers don’t trust brands, packages, or advertising any more than they are tricked into trusting them. One way to convey sincerity is to include detail that does not convey the whitewashed singularity of purpose that many brands hide behind. Burns says that he tries to reveal flaws in the “good guys” and find ways to make “bad guys” compelling to viewers.

In the end, truth can lose its power when used explicitly as marketing. It is more powerful when it forms in consumers minds as a result of the authentic stories you tell, sincerely.