The best story never told
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin. Martians have landed in New Jersey!”
It was a Sunday night on October 30 in 1938 when those words interrupted a radio broadcast of The Mercury Theater on the Air in the U.S. For the next hour, the program was interrupted with news updates. Listeners heard from reporters live on the scene with radio sirens in the background and noises of scurry and panic unfolding. Reporters shared what they were observing. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed . . . Wait a minute! Someone's crawling out of the top. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It’s indescribable, I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it.”
There were no commercials, just the music program with interruptions of Martians landing in various parts of the U.S. and killing people. This was all part of the story Orson Welles modified from the book “War of the Worlds,” written by H.G. Wells. Welles used sound effects, live music, different voices and first-person storytelling as though it were happening in real-time.
Media reported that listeners believed the broadcast, resulting in coast-to-coast mass panic and hysteria. People fled their homes in terror. Traffic accidents piled up as frantic people hurried to escape. Newspaper and police offices were flooded with calls. Victims showed up in mass numbers at hospitals. The next day, newspaper headlines used large bold font on front pages: “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.” and “Radio Play Terrifies Nation.” The shock and impact from the broadcast was clear.
Except it wasn’t. Panic never broke out. There were no known hospital cases, accidents or calls flooding offices. What is most interesting about the War of the Worlds broadcast isn’t the broadcast itself. But the story that has been believed for eight decades – that the broadcast created wide-spread panic. Researchers found that less than two percent of homes were listening to the radio broadcast that evening. Which came with a message at the beginning and middle of the program announcing the performance of the adaption of War of the Worlds by Wells and closed with Welles sending Halloween wishes. The story of the myth may be more powerful than the broadcast.
Over the years, this myth that listeners sat next to their radios in fear has grown. Because I regularly help people learn how to use storytelling at work, I wanted to explored what made this story so appealing. I learned this was part circumstance and part powerful storytelling.
1938 was an anxious time – a year ahead of WWII beginning. People were no longer relying on newspapers. They could listen to radios for news updates and musical and storytelling entertainment. Advertisers began shifting purchases to radio, and the print media was hurting through the U.S. depression. Newspapers were being disrupted and fought for relevancy. They sensationalized the panic over the broadcast to reinforce to advertisers and regulators that radio was irresponsible and not to be trusted. They also knew a good story would sell more papers. The more you elicit emotions in your reader through story, the more interest you peak. You might even say this was the first fake news. It changed how people remembered the night. Over the years, more people claimed to have listened in than actually did. They remembered the fear and concern felt from reading the stories the next day.
The storytelling approach used by the show and newspapers made it stick throughout the years. When you hear a nation was struck with fear, you can’t help but think in the back of your head: “Would I have believed it if I was listening? Would I have been afraid?” We listen to stories through our own experiences, helping us process over 34GB of information daily. We subconsciously link what we hear/read to what we already know, store it as a new learning, or forget it.
Both stories invited the listener/reader in through the senses. The radio broadcast used first-person, allowing the listener to feel the experience of events. Newspapers used headlines like “Radio play terrifies a nation” and descriptions of “fear” and “panic” in their stories. When you engage the senses while telling a story, you draw the listener/reader in. Their brain lights up in the respective lobes of emotions as though they are experiencing them first-hand. This is called neural coupling and explains why you can watch an action movie and feel your pulse quicken, even though you are sitting still in your seat.
Leveraging the senses and emotions in storytelling helps increase recall. Stories get stored with the senses in the brain. This is why you can smell a perfume and remember a loved one. Or hear a song and be taken back to when you were 10 years old and hanging out with friends.
Stories aren’t just to entertain. They are incredibly powerful tools for sharing information, especially at work.* They are neurologically validated approaches to learn and process information. They invite the listener to think “What would I do?” or “What does this mean to me,” even when about things never experienced before. They help employees navigate change and neurologically experience what is possible, even before experiencing first-hand.
What stories can you tell in the next two weeks?
*I’ve created a dedicated website page for storytelling offerings and resources. I’ll be adding more videos and tools over the next several months. And of course, there is a story behind this new image (that I love from our amazing graphic’s artist!). Radio stories informed, entertained and connected people for years. They were first written and then spoken – and were so impactful that we now see the rise of podcasts mimicking what was done during the Golden Age of Radio. To me, the radio microphone embodies storytelling.