Contrast as a Storytelling ...


In conducting our storytelling workshops, the concept of contrast is one technique that always resonates with participants.

I think of contrast as a poor man’s failure. Several posts have highlighted the power of failure in lifting a narrative, but most companies won’t go there. When was the last time a CEO barked “OK, let’s focus on these failures in the coming quarter?”

Yet, the failure story at its core is one of contrast — failure vs. success — a technique acceptable to all companies.

You can always find examples of contrast in the media. After the shocking terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the lights in the Eiffel Tower were turned off out of respect for the victims. In covering the story, The Wall Street Journal could have run a photo like this:

WSJ - Eiffel Tower - visual storytelling

Instead, the Journal ran the following photo on Page 1 above the fold, showing the iconic symbol with and without lights:

WSJ - Eiffel Tower - visual storytelling 2

As another example from the media, TIME Magazine runs a simple vignette each week that contrasts someone who had a good week with someone who had a bad week:

GoodWeek-BadWeek - Time Magazine visual storytelling

One of my favorite examples of contrast comes from a Whole Foods thought leadership campaign on the critical role that bee pollination plays in the food chain. To hammer home this point, the campaign contrasted the produce department with bees and without bees eliminating:

  • Apples
  • Onions
  • Avocados
  • Carrots
  • Mangos
  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Honeydew
  • Cantaloupe
  • Zucchini
  • Summer squash
  • Eggplant
  • Cucumbers
  • Celery
  • Green onions
  • Cauliflower
  • Leeks
  • Bok choy
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Broccoli rabe
  • Mustard greens

On the visual storytelling side, the classic contrast immediately comes through:

WholeFoods-visual-storytelling-produce-department-“with-bees”-“without-bees” 02-15

One of our clients, Alcatel-Lucent, put contrast to good use in communicating its vision as it embarked on a turnaround plan.

If the company merely provides an outline that calls for:

  • Focus on IP Networking and Ultra-Broadband specialist
  • Four main businesses with different management and P&L responsibility
  • Prioritize R&D
  • 1 billion in euros in fixed cost savings
  • Self-funded and financial sustainability

… there’s no context for the story — thus, the absence of “life.”

Instead, Alcatel-Lucent packaged its vision with contrast:

ALU - business storytelling

Even if Alcatel-Lucent weren’t our client, I would say that it took guts to share where it is coming from, obviously not a flattering portrayal.

Often, executives won’t sign up for sharing the “before” part because it puts the company in a negative light. But without this part, there is no contrast. You can’t just jump ahead to the good stuff. Framing contrast with “old way à new way” or “before à after” or “with à without” delivers natural springboards into this technique.

The greater the gap between the points, the more drama or tension in the narrative.

The story of a person who goes from rags to riches regularly appears in the media. You rarely read about the individual who parlays moderate success to riches.

Watching the new AMC TV series “Better Call Saul” — brought to you by the same folks who created Breaking Bad — we find Saul has gone from a lifestyle where no bad suit is out of his price range to working at a Cinnabon. It’s the sizable gap that jars the senses (and amuses).

One final comment —

While not exactly the same thing, a comparison can also insert a fresh wrinkle into a story.

One such comparison that stands out in my mind involved India’s space mission that orbited Mars last year. Narendra Modi, now India’s prime minister, pointed out that the cost of his country’s Mars mission was less than it took to make the movie Gravity. The clever juxtaposition ended up in countless headlines.

India Mars Coverage - storytelling


Whether it’s contrast or comparison, the technique should be part of every communicator’s arsenal.


Comments are closed.