How much is a $3 ashtray purchased at a yard sale worth? Trick question. What if the same ashtray is sold on eBay but includes a short story by William Gibson? Then it's worth $101.
Still don't believe in the alchemistic powers of a great story? Then you need to read Significant Objects, a new book that details a quirky literary experiment that set out to prove that "stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object's subjective value can actually be measured objectively." And as coauthors Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker discovered, whether a famous author or an up-and-comer wrote the story didn't matter.
By the end of the experiment, they had sold $128.74 worth of insignificant objects for a combined total of $3,612.51.
Once Upon a Newsletter
Although Significant Objects is a fun reminder of the value of fiction, that doesn't mean you should turn over your newsletter campaign to the staff of the Paris Review. But anyone looking for a reminder of simple but effective storytelling can learn a few lessons from the makers of the Pebble smartwatch.
As part of my Kickstarter pledge for Pebble, I now receive regular updates via email. And although the emails are occasionally long and geekish, I've been impressed at how the Pebble founders are able to tell a natural and compelling story about their watch in progress.
A recent update promised, "We're looking forward to sharing all kinds of cool things with you during the next few months, including updates from the factory, links to developer information [and] screenshots of the iOS and Android app as they take shape." It's a birth narrative, except for a watch instead of baby. The updates even contain some narrative tension—how soon will Pebble be able to ship watches to eager backers who were promised a September deadline?
Even though I've already paid for the watch, this behind-the-scenes tour is increasing Pebble's perceived value by making me emotionally invested in its development. This process is almost identical to the literary experiment that Significant Objects conducted, except that Pebble is telling a nonfiction story.