The Sea We Swim In

How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World

"A brilliant and deceptively simple guide to narrative thinking, and why narrative thinking is changing the way we shop, the way we vote, the way we feel, and the way we perceive the world around us . . . It is such a fascinating and in many ways a new way to look at reality."

— John Fugelsang, SiriusXM

"It’s a zingier version, then, of the post-Aristotelian story-theory books beloved of screenwriters, with a rich range of reference that takes in the novels of Gustave Flaubert as well as the twists of ABC's 'Lost.' But the analysis has a wider salience. . . . It’s critical thinking for an age of pervasive media."

— Steven Poole, The Wall Street Journal

"Neuroscientists tell us and politicians . . . well know how much more convincing a good story can be than an account that's based on data. A good reason to learn more about the brain mechanisms that are activated by stories and the tricks that storytellers use, both of which are revealed by the digital anthropologist Frank Rose."

— Corriere della Sera (Milan)

"'The Sea We Swim In' is an essential master class in how to think about that next pitch you need to make, letter you want to write, speech you have to deliver, or anything else you hope will be persuasive.The right story can open up a person's heart and change their mind far more effectively than an argument or set of data—and Frank Rose explains it all beautifully."

— Daniel J. Levitin, best-selling author of "This Is Your Brain on Music" and "The Organized Mind"

"Frank Rose's fascinating new book is an essential companion for our age — when narratives, no matter how incredible, produce real-world outcomes that defy all reason. 'The Sea We Swim In’ takes us systematically through the elements that create compelling stories and offers a practical guide both to crafting powerful tales and to resisting the pull of the most dangerous."

— Rita McGrath, Columbia Business School professor and author of "Seeing Around Corners"

"As we’ve witnessed in the rise of conspiracy theories around the coronavirus and presidential election . . . science and rationality can be trumped by powerfully told, emotionally appealing, and endlessly repeated narratives that are contrary to verifiable facts. We can say that such narratives are divorced from reality, but as Frank Rose writes in ‘The Sea We Swim In,’ ‘reality is a construct, and narrative is the chief means of construction.’"

— Porchlight Books (staff pick)

"If you want to connect with customers — that is to say, with the audience for the experience you’ve created — Frank Rose shows not only that you have to think narratively but how to go about it, element by element. And he wonderfully exemplifies his ideas, for his stories about storytelling are superbly written and expertly woven together. Read this book to be immersed in the sea of storytelling that's so crucial to business success today."

— B. Joseph Pine II, coauthor of "The Experience Economy" and "Authenticity"

"A master storyteller on the story of stories. Rose deconstructs them expertly—how they make us pay attention, how they move us, and why we remember them. His eloquent toolkit will help us make our own stories more effective and avoid being buffeted by the strange modern sea of digital stories that surrounds us."

— David Kirkpatrick, author of "The Facebook Effect" and founder of Techonomy

"Terrifically readable, as compelling as the many successful stories and stories of success it tells."

— Brian Boyd, author of "On the Origin of Stories" and emeritus professor of English at the University of Auckland

"For the past decade, Rose has shifted his attention from telling stories to dissecting them, researching how technology has collided with humanity's innate need for narratives. . . . In his latest book, 'The Sea We Swim In,' Rose explains the science of how narratives shape our reality and how the Internet has broken the spell of passive consumption."

— Contagious (UK)

A practical guide to “narrative thinking” — and why it matters in a world defined by data.

Now available in paperback, with a new introduction on the stories we tell ourselves about A.I.

STORIES ARE CRITICAL to our understanding of the world. They determine our personal lives, our professional lives, our goals and ambitions and ideals. They can control us, or we can control them — if we know how they work. In THE SEA WE SWIM IN, Frank Rose leads us to a new understanding of this force in the world.
Psychologists, economists, advertising and marketing executives — for decades, the experts failed to register the power of narrative. Scientists thought stories were too frivolous to study. Economists were knee-deep in theory. Marketers just wanted to cut to the sales pitch. Yet stories, not reasoning, are the key to persuasion.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, stories determine how we comprehend the world and our place in it. And the tools of professional storytellers — character, world, detail, voice — can unlock a way of thinking that’s required for an age in which we don’t passively consume media but actively participate in it.
Building on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, inspired by the author’s Strategic Storytelling seminar at Columbia University, THE SEA WE SWIM IN shows us how to see the world in narrative terms, not as a thesis to be argued but as a story to be told. This is the essence of narrative thinking. It is, as The Wall Street Journal notes, “critical thinking for an age of pervasive media.”
Leading brands and top entertainment professionals already understand this mode of thought. From Warby Parker to Mailchimp to The Walking Dead, this book explains how they use stories to turn ordinary people into fans — and how you can do the same.


Frank and Charlie Melcher discuss The Sea We Swim In on the Future of StoryTelling Podcast:

Founded by the award-winning book and app developer Charles Melcher in 2011, the Future of StoryTelling (FoST) is a passionate community of people from the worlds of media, technology, and communications who are exploring how storytelling is evolving in the digital age. FoST’s year-round programming draws on the collective knowledge of its network of world-class experts from all different spheres of storytelling. In addition to its two-day, invitation-only Summit in New York City, FoST produces storytelling workshops, curated exhibitions with local and international organizations, a monthly newsletter and the Future of StoryTelling Podcast, recently featured as a “New & Noteworthy” series by Apple. Among Charlie’s previous guests are Margaret Atwood, Joseph Pine, Al Gore and Neil Patrick Harris.
A full transcript of this conversation can be found on the FoST website.

Frank discusses digital storytelling with Russ Roberts on EconTalk:

Russ Roberts is the John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of several books, among them How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. He founded the award-winning weekly podcast EconTalk in 2006, interviewing such guests as Milton Friedman, Thomas Piketty, Christopher Hitchens, Nicholas Nassim Taleb, Yuval Noah Harari and Michael Lewis.
Visit EconTalk to see links to other books and people mentioned in the conversation, listeners’ comments and a full transcript of this conversation. Russ’s 2011 conversation with Frank, about his book The Art of Immersion, is available on EconTalk as well.

Read the “narrative platform” excerpts in strategy+business . . . 

A key concept in The Sea We Swim In is the idea of the narrative platform, an extension of platform economics that can serve as a force multiplier for any organization that seeks to leverage the power of stories. Strategy+business excerpted a section on The Walking Dead to accompany PwC’s 2021 Global Entertainment & Media Outlook, while the Milken Institute Review adapted segments on Warby Parker and Burberry to show how this can work for non-entertainment brands as well.

The remarkable narrative life of The Walking Dead

By surrounding it with spin-offs, games, live events, even a talk show about the show, AMC Networks transformed a cable television series into a cultural phenomenon that invited fans to interact and co-create. In the process it created an entirely new kind of platform — an ecosystem of stories that brings like-minded people together in a marketplace of ideas and information.

. . . and in The Milken Institute Review:

The Fifth Platform

Economists have identified four types of platforms, each of which brings together different groups of people for their mutual benefit. Now a fifth type is emerging. Narrative platforms support a sprawling ecosystem of stories; they also function as a place for like-minded people to interact with other like-minded people — people who are there to connect with the story, but also to connect with each other about the story. To see the outsized impact this can have, witness the blossoming of Warby Parker and the rebirth of Burberry.

The Art of Immersion

How the Digital Generation Is Changing Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories

"Compelling . . . From 'Star Wars' to 'Lost' ('television for the hive mind'), it is the immersive, 'fractal-like com­plexity' of story­telling that turns on digital audiences and sends them online to extend the fantasy via wikis, Twitter and blogs."

— P.D. James, The Guardian (London)

NOT LONG AGO WE WERE passive consumers of mass media. Now we approach television, movies, even advertising as invitations to participate. We are witnessing the emergence of a new form of narrative that is native to the In­ternet. More about this book...

The Agency

William Morris and The Hidden History of Show Business

"'The Agency' is more than just a titillating string of bold-face names, though; Rose uses the saga of the Morris Agency's rise and fall as a prism through which to examine the con­stantly evolving nature of show business itself."

— Gregg Kilday, Los Angeles Times Book Review

FOR DECADES, the Morris agency made deals that determined the fate of stars, studios, and television networks alike. But everything changed after the agency's president dismissed his own best friend, the man who'd brought Barry Diller and Michael Ovitz out of the mailroom. A multi-generational saga of loyalty and betrayal in Hollywood. More about this book...