The Sea We Swim In

How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World

"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

"'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"

"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

"As we’ve witnessed in the rise of conspiracy theories around the coronavirus and presidential election over the past year, 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)

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


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 discusses digital storytelling with Russ Roberts on EconTalk:

From EconTalk:

Once it was The Shadow radio show; now it’s the podcast Serial. Is every old storytelling medium new again? Frank Rose concedes that some things remain sacred—from the power of a great hook to the hope that a great story will never end. But he also thinks the Internet has led to new kinds of stories, ones that are not just entertaining but immersive, and whose worlds are more richly imaginative than ever—even as they leave less and less to our imagination.
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 transcript. 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:

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:

In his book The Sea We Swim In, Frank Rose shows how narrative platform strategies have been key to the success not just of television shows and the like but also of non-entertainment enterprises like Warby Parker, the company that sells eyeglasses online, and Burberry, the English heritage brand that 20 years ago was on the verge of collapse but has since been reborn. An education in how (and how rapidly) marketing is changing.

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

NOT LONG AGO WE WERE SPECTATORS, passive consumers of mass media. Now we approach television shows, movies, even advertising as invitations to participate — as experiences to immerse ourselves in at will. What we’re witnessing is 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

"A cram course on the modern entertainment business as seen not from the cus­tomary perspective of the talent, but from the point of view of the humble appa­ratchiks who doggedly tried to prevent the lunatics from wrecking their asylum."

— Peter Bart, The New York 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...