It doesn’t matter where you hang out professionally these days, storytelling is everywhere. Every other post on LinkedIn is about storytelling; numerous courses and workshops will teach you to craft and present your story. If you are a manager, you have to use storytelling to engage your team; if you report to a manager, you’d better have a good story to present. There’s storytelling for data and storytelling for pitching to investors, storytelling for dating and storytelling for teachers, storytelling for convincing your children to clean up their room, and storytelling for getting a raise.
If you don’t have a good story, you’re doomed. If you don’t know how to tell your story, you should roll up your sleeves and practice. It doesn’t matter how good your ideas are; if you can’t wrap them with a good story, nobody will listen, let alone act upon them. Storytelling is the new silver bullet that will solve all your problems and make all your wishes come true. For a “technology” that exists for as long as the human species does, it sure makes a lot of buzz.
I know this sounds like the beginning of a rant and a strange one coming from someone who writes about communication and helps people express their ideas to create an impact. Isn’t that what storytelling is all about? Well, it is part of that. It isn’t the single most important thing you can do to convince others or share your message, but that’s not what I am worried about. To understand my problem with overhyping storytelling, we must start with why storytelling is so compelling.
Why We Love Storytelling
Before anything else, I have to clarify: storytelling does work. In some cases. For some people and organizations. For some purposes and part of the time. Storytelling is an important tool in your rhetoric toolbox, but the key is knowing when to use it, just like it is with any other tool. So, why do we love it so much that we see it as the ultimate solution to all our problems? It starts with the story we are told. Obviously.
Anyone who talks about storytelling will tell you our brain is wired for stories. We are drawn to stories from the dawn of time, and that’s why humans have always told stories. Our prehistoric ancestors painted stories on the walls of their caves; our religions are based on stories; stories are always at the center of human culture, and, of course, the most successful brands and leaders in the world use stories to affect what people think and how they act. If storytelling works for all these people and organizations throughout history, why shouldn’t we use it to have it our way?
We also love stories as an audience. We read books, watch films and plays, and we know we are drawn to a certain kind of rhetoric. We know stories are compelling, and we intuitively feel they are a good tool for convincing. If that is the case, why not harness storytelling to our use? Why should we stay in the position of the audience when we clearly have something to say?
So, storytelling has historical and evolutionary roots, and we love it from an audience’s perspective. But that’s not all. When it comes to communication, storytelling is also relatively easy. I am not trying to trivialize it; storytelling is a craft requiring learning and practice. But it is easy in the sense that it is all about the person telling the story. It’s about you. You have to know what you wish to say and what you wish to achieve; if you manage to convey your message and move your audience from point A to point B, you’ve nailed it. You must know your audience, but only to craft your best story. It is far from trivial, but it is still easier than what communication really could and should be. Much easier. And that’s where I find the hype around storytelling troubling.
The Problem With Storytelling
The modern hype around storytelling originates in marketing, where the sole purpose of the storyteller is to sell (or, when extended to other domains, convince). No, this is not a bad thing. It is a valid use case, and storytelling is an effective tool for creating attachments to your brand and ideas. But this is not the essence of communication. Not by a stretch.
Meaningful communication should help us collaborate and co-create. We communicate to achieve things together — things we will never be able to accomplish by ourselves. This is the real story of our species: more than we are drawn to stories, we are wired to create things together. The essence of communication is exchanging ideas and being affected as much as affecting others. Storytelling undermines the heart of real and effective communication because storytelling is focused on telling.
Storytelling is all about the person telling the story; it is their story to tell. When you carefully craft your story, you get attached to it. Your goal is to share it with the world to affect as many people as possible. The more you tell and refine your story, the less inclined you are to hear other stories and be affected by them. When the focus is on your story, the only reason to change it is to reach more people.
Effective communication, on the other hand, is bi-directional. That’s the only way to collaborate and co-create. You have to listen at least as much as you are about to talk. And you have to listen not to be able to respond but with an open mind — with the possibility (or the hope) that you will be affected. That is true when you communicate with your colleagues, with your team, and with your manager. It is also true when you communicate with your clients. It might also be a good idea when you market your products and ideas. And while all this can theoretically co-exist with storytelling, the hype around storytelling shifts our collective mindset.
When everyone is a storyteller, no one listens. When you are convinced storytelling is the silver bullet that will help you navigate any scenario, you cannot be open to what other people are saying; you are convinced that your story is the story that matters.
It might sound like a rant about a marketing buzzword that got out of control. It is not. This is a wake-up call. A good story is great. The way you articulate an idea is as important as the idea itself. But your idea is just one idea, and when you focus entirely on what you have in mind, you miss the potential of numerous interactions, connections, and fusions with other people and their ideas.
Instead of being storytellers, let’s aim to be co-authors. As anyone who ever created anything with someone else will tell you, it’s an entirely different experience. It is not only a better experience; our prosperity depends on it.