Have you ever been to Burning Man: this 55,000+ burner event in Black Rock City, Nevada? If not, have you ever wanted to go? Or do you think like some folks do that it’s just a self-indulgent orgy of hipsters parading around the Playa?

I hear it’s actually a model of sustainability in that every Burner must bring in all of their provisions, and take out all of their trash after the roughly week-long gathering. They literally build a city, and then remove it without a trace, in one of the most hostile conditions in North America.

Having never been myself, I’ve been fascinated by the draw of this gathering, especially as I’ve followed the growth of Oh, The Places You’ll Go at Burning Man, a short film that, using the words of Dr. Seuss, documented last year’s festival. Three young filmmakers, our son included, produced the project at their expense because they wanted to share their perspective of the community of burners that commune in Northern Nevada this time every year.

I’ve been particularly intrigued by the thousands of comments the film has generated from people around the world. Why is it so profoundly powerful: nearly three million views, and 37,000 likes to 600 dislikes?

How this film captures the storyteller within us all

I found my answer in Jonah Sach’s new book, Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell – and live – the best stories will rule the future. Jonah, a marketing storytelling master, has had several viral successes, including The Story of Stuff and The Meatrix. What he has found in creating compelling stories that beg to be shared, he shares in Winning the Story Wars.

One of  the most intriguing parts of the book is how a story needs freaks, cheats and familiars to be successful, which I believe is the secret behind the universal embrace of Oh, The Places…

Freaks, according to Sachs, are the marvelously-interesting-to-look-at characters in our stories. Freaks play off the human brain’s preference for focusing on other humans, especially the most unusual ones.

“The very structure of our brains favors attention to the weird.”



Think about the last time you were in a crowded place. Chances are your brain scanned the people and discarded the majority of faces because they looked “normal” and posed no particular threat or opportunity. But did you stop and notice, perhaps even stare, at that odd or interesting looking stranger that caught your eye? Take a look at the above film. Isn’t it full of freaks: humans masquerading as various archetypes? They’re stunning.

Cheats are characters that are in opposition to the established norms of behavior. They either move against the establishment to create something better, or they want to topple societal norms with more evil intentions. We pull for our good cheats to win, and we like to see our evil cheats lose.

Burning Man is a hive buzzing with cheats; burners who choose to celebrate life in their own way. The cast of characters in this otherworld setting are all about challenging the status quo to find their happy place, even if it is only found within. According to the evolutionary science that Sachs weaves like fiberglass throughout his book to strengthen his premiss about our biological need for story, humans are powerfully drawn to those who challenge social norms. Those who are fighting to find a better way, or the anarchists. Everything in between is stasis, and thus boring.

Familiars are the constructs we use once we have captured attention with the freaks and cheats of our story to give meaning to our plot and make it approachable.

The familiar in “Oh, The Places…” is Theo Seuss Geisel’s extraordinarily popular final book on the challenges and opportunities life presents us.

It is a fitting story for those on the Playa who are calling time out for a week to find and express themselves outside of their daily lives. And it resonates magnificently with those around the world who watch and share this film over and over; those who have indulged in the Burning Man experience, and those who are living vicariously through these characters. Just read the comments, and you’ll see what I mean.

So how are you using freaks, cheats and familiars in your brand stories? If your advertising or online videos aren’t having the impact you think they should have, then examine the structure and characters of your stories. Winning the Story Wars is one of the finest books on how to produce stories that gain rapt attention and significantly change behavior.

Read it, and I bet you can nudge the world in any direction YOU choose.

I would love your comments on Oh, The Places You’ll Go at Burning Man. Do you love it? Hate it? How’s it work for you? Please share.