Confessions of a Storyteller
Storytelling is a lie.
This is not a hot take like “advertising is dead”, it’s an etymological fact.
Telling stories was what I got into trouble for as a child when I claimed to have eaten all my vegetables as our family hound lay, full and snoring, under the dinner table.
So, when it showed up as an endorsed skill on my LinkedIn profile a gazillion years ago, I was very troubled by the idea that someone thought I was a fibber, and a professional at it, too.
While this may be true, I’m not alone. Brené Brown in her landmark TED talk The Power of Vulnerability muses about the time she was pitched the idea of being labelled a storyteller at a conference she was invited to speak at:
In today’s professional marketplace, storytelling has been radically reinvented and now sits comfortably in many a resumé and job description (including my own); however, it doesn’t seem like it will ever manage to escape its roots.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
For weavers of stories, like Hermes and Mr. Nancy, fabrication isn’t a bug - it’s a feature. When we go to the movies we suspend our disbelief; filmmakers, novelists and such are described as spinning a tale, and if you’re not following a storyline, you’ve lost the thread.
This evokes the image of pulling different ideas together into a new shape.
Text and textile share the same root word, texere in Latin, meaning “to weave”. Storytellers are masters at spinning context, knowledge and rhetorical tactics into a compelling narrative tapestry.
Or a web. A beguiling web.
So what could possibly makes us regard storytelling as subtly dishonest?
It is clearly a beloved and revered practice, why the baked-in sprinkling of mistrust?
Here is a list-of-three hypothesis:
1. It’s a powerful tool for spreading ideas and, through this, changing behaviour at a biochemical level.
2. The story is affixed to the storyteller, specifically the intention of this person.
3. People should not be trusted.
Point 3 is overly cynical; let’s instead say: not blindly trusted.
Everything from playground politics to economics are influenced, for better or worse, by storytelling.
If you look hard enough, and with a critical eye, you don’t have to scroll far down your timeline to see examples of this - #fakenews. To take it one step further, the platforms that serve us this dopamine releasing drip-feed of stories are, it could be argued, exhibit A for the prosecution.
Yuval Noah Harari has been a relentless critic of Silicon Valley, especially in his latest book. Always a keen observer of the collective myths that have allowed us to build our complex society (like money and religion and stuff), he warns that the global tech giants are not serving but profiting off us, literally. Not a new insight by any stretch, but to Facebook, Google and the like we aren’t clients, we’re the product. Our data is the golden egg and personalised targeting the gilded cage.
In brief, his warning to us is that this data will one day be the tool AI uses to control our behaviour to the point where our “humanity”, our ability to exclusively know our inner motivations, becomes irrelevant.
By the way, this is how advertising dies.
I’m not a mindless worshipper at the altar of Harari’s rarified musings (although his books are amazing and you should read them all). Nor am I a fan of the “us” (eager to relinquish our free will in exchange for content ) and “them” (AI overlords wearing badly fitting Zuck costumes) argument. The pitched battle for the soul of humanity, whether viewed through the lens of science, biology or philosophy, comes over a bit intensely.
Ultimately, the one seemingly incorruptible “truth” amongst the “lies” is that we are, all of us, storytellers. We are collectively complicit in an ancient and intrinsic human transaction, regardless how objective and we may believe we are.
According to the brilliant and slightly intimidating Suzanne Duncan, we are serial victims/culprits of stories, others and our own:
Watch her whole Ted Talk video. It’s brutal, but worth it.
She asks a salient, and counter-intuitive question: in circumstances where everything inside us - our core values, our bedrock beliefs - are drawn inexorably towards the skew of a particular story, isn’t this when we should be most critical of that story, and curious about what it can teach us about ourselves?
To flimsy connect this all back to marketing-slash-advertising for a moment (because Thought Leadership), next time you’re stumbling through the endless online thicket of hysterical think pieces or obvious listicles promising relief from the uncertainty around the future of our business, stop and listen. Listen for that little voice calling bullshit, and if you don’t hear them - ask yourself why.
The spineless centrism of “seeing all sides” is most certainly not what’s being espoused here. If there are Nazis out there publicly inciting discrimination and harm against vulnerable people, they should most certainly be receptors of the odd punching. Nor is this encouragement for deniers of scientifically adjudicated realities, like climate change or the fact (and I can’t believe I’m typing this) that the earth is round.
It’s merely a friendly suggestion that we suspend our belief just long enough to figure out what the intentions behind these ceaseless stories are.
To be aware of and accept accountability for what we take in and what we communicate to each other.
How else will we ever know if we’re being strung along?