Fear, Dread, and Good Campfire Storytelling by Skyword’s Tom Gerace at SummitUp

By Mark Pompilio, Dayton PRSA president

After an early start to SummitUp and a busy morning of break-out sessions, keynote speaker Tom Gerace faced a crowd that had lunch on their minds more than “How to Capture Hearts and Minds through Storytelling.”

How did he capture our attention? By leading us down a memory lane of human evolution, and reminding us that we are still a cave family gathered around the fire, open to the fundamental story-telling elements that naturally draw us in.

First, he wanted us to understand how evolution has trained our brains to store memory. Positive memories are about what makes us more likely to survive; negative memories are about what is more likely to bring us harm.

Awareness of our own mortality makes us human, and we exist with this knowledge between the distinctly different notions of fear and dread. “Fear is for the threat to our existence we can avoid,” explained Tom. “Dread is for the end of our existence we cannot avoid.”

From this lament evolved the basic elements of the most captivating campfire stories. “Storytelling evolved as our minds evolved,” he said.

Soon enough, Tom’s interesting preamble on the evolution of human nature arrived at the focus of his keynote: making marketing connections through original storytelling.


For the “story” to be a marketing success, it must:

  • Hook their attention.

  • Hold their attention.

  • Reward their attention.

  • Move them to act.


    Lesson one,” he said, “We have to have a value change that throws the character of the story out of equilibrium.” He described this as the beginning of story FORM – not a how-to story formula.


  • Story form begins with a character thrown out of the equilibrium of their daily existence by dramatic events. As the audience, we’re vulnerable, curious, and empathetic – so this gets our attention.

  • The character makes a value change, but fails at the attempt to regain equilibrium. There’s no easy answer, the story takes twists and turns, and that holds our attention.

  • Finally we reach the climax of story. The character will achieve or not achieve what was desired based on the decisions they made. This revelation rewards our attention.


    To utilize this story form in successful marketing we have to convey how people feel and build a connection. “It’s not enough to build brand connection and hope that it works,” he said. “We have to convince them to act differently. We have to move them to act.”


    Tom concluded with both a statement and challenge: Our world has changed - have you?

    He returned to a theme that would be often repeated at SummitUp: Consumers have more options for information than ever, and they will ignore us and reject us.


    “We must learn to entertain them a little,” he said. “Give them something meaningful, and the business result will be different.


Tom Gerace is founder and CEO of Skyword, a content marketing software and services company that inspires marketers to create deep connections with audiences through original and sustainable storytelling. IBM, MasterCard, New Balance,, and United Way Worldwide are among Skyword’s clients.

The company origin story on the Skyword website begins, “One day a few years ago, a light bulb went off in a conference room in Cincinnati. Skyword founder Tom Gerace realized the world had shifted: People were gathering information primarily through Internet search and social media, rather than the morning paper or the evening news. The future of digital marketing lay in the content people were clicking on — not in ads trying to interrupt those billions of searches.”

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