In Defense of Clippy
If you’re chuckling derisively right now, you do. For the uninitiated, Clippy was a much-maligned animated, anthropomorphized paper clip created by Microsoft as an “intelligent user interface” assistant for Microsoft Office products in the late 90s and early 00s. The software would monitor what you were doing and if it thought you needed some guidance, Clippy would pop up with a message such as: “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?” He would offer you choices such as “Get Help writing a letter,” “Just type the letter without help,” and the most popular choice of all, “Don’t show me this tip again.” Microsoft was forced to turn this “feature” off by default because of a loud chorus of negative feedback, and eventually removed it from Office altogether. Clippy died a lonely death, mourned by no one.
Well, let me say a few words in defense of Clippy.
Although the implementation was clumsy and too-easily mockable (“It looks like you’re writing a blog post. Would you like help?”), the idea that Office users might be willing to accept help from a character with some personality instead of a cold block of text on their computer monitor was on the money. The proof is in your hands or on the screen in front of you right now: you talk to “Siri” when you want some information, or say “OK, Google” or “Hey, Cortana.” They’re all designed to make you feel like you’re interacting with a “person,”not a device, just like Clippy was. That underscores what, for me, is a fundamental concept of storytelling: the importance of personalization.
Anthropomorphism, giving human characteristics to non-human things, has ancient roots as a storytelling device. It’s because people relate best to stories about people, not things. When I was producing “America’s Most Wanted,” I would tell people the show’s longevity was based in part on the concept that it wasn’t a show about crimes, it was a show about people that crimes happened to. Or people who solved crimes. Or, even, people who committed crimes. The point was, every story we produced revolved around a character or characters who the audience could empathize with, cheer for, fear for, root for, or even hate. Viewers would stick with us and be motivated to pay attention to the clues we’d give out, and help us help law enforcement solve cases, because they felt a connection to the people they’d just met in our stories.
I’ve been reading a lot lately, and thinking a lot, about the difference between having a great story to tell and telling a great story. The idea that a great story simply tells itself just isn’t true, and can actually be dangerous. An interesting essay in The Atlantic (quoted in another interesting piece in Elite Daily) titled “The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling” offers a good illustration of what I’m talking about:
“The theory is that if I tell you a story about how to survive, you’ll be more likely to actually survive than if I just give you facts. For instance, if I were to say, “There’s an animal near that tree, so don’t go over there,” it would not be as effective as if I were to tell you, “My cousin was eaten by a malicious, scary creature that lurks around that tree, so don’t go over there.” A narrative works off of both data and emotions, which is significantly more effective in engaging a listener than data alone.”
The data (a dangerous animal is near that tree) is pretty compelling, but when it gets personalized (“my cousin was eaten”), emotion comes into play and it becomes more than just an interesting fact. In telling a story about a person a thing happened to, you get people to pay attention to the thing.
Obviously, Clippy didn’t get anyone killed (that we know of – can you imagine “You seem about to be eaten by a scary creature. Would you like help?”). And although his career didn’t work out well, my belief is that if you don’t personalize the story you’re trying to tell, if you don’t make it revolve around relatable people – whether it’s a TV crime show, a new product introduction, an internal corporate video discussing some new policy, whatever – you run the risk of killing the message you want to deliver.
This is my first blog post like this, and I’d love to hear your thoughts …because listening and collaboration are right up there with personalization in the toolbox for creating great stories.