Eleven Things You Should Know About Storytelling

humanity's greatest but most dangerous tool

Giovanni René Rodriguez

Originally published in

Earlier this month, I launched a series of articles about the art, science, and ethics of storytelling (this is the fifth installment in the series).  The objective is to share key insights gathered from my studies and work in the field with clients in both civic and commercial arenas. I am thinking of the output as the building blocks for a curriculum, or short chapters for a book, on what I've come to regard as humanity's greatest but also most dangerous communications tool, especially in the digital era. But if this series were to become the foundation for a book, chapter one would be today's post, which outlines the top eleven things that people should know about storytelling, whether or not they are communication professionals.

I would have chosen just ten things on which to focus. But in a nod to Nigel Tufnel, and the power of small odd prime numbers, this article "goes to eleven."

1. Stories began tribally. We are culturally wired.

As I have noted throughout this series and in other articles, stories predate written history.  According to some scholars -- based on what they know about indigenous cultures -- stories in part assisted with the indoctrination of younger members of the tribe by having them tell,  in their own words, the stories of the tribe. Assuming that this story and other stories about stories are true (see principle #3 to see why we should be concerned) -- the tribal origin of stories should be top of mind when practicing storytelling. Stories can unite people, but they can also divide. That said, there's an interesting, and largely positive, aspect of tribal storytelling that might help us compensate for its shortcomings (I'll return to that at the end of this article).

2. We are physically wired, too.

This was the topic of the fourth installment in the series, entitled, "This Is Your Brain On Storytelling," where I look at organic chemicals such as cortisol, dopamine, and oxytocin and effect they have on us when we follow a story.  I note how these and other compounds (I call them drugs) might effectively guide people down the so-called marketing funnel from attention to arousal to action. That said, the young science of neurochemistry has led to flimsy and unsavory marketing practices. In the spirit of the scientific method, I advise readers to approach the topic with a critical mind.

3.  Stories are truth-neutral.

Joseph Campbell, the famous scholar of comparative mythology, observed that stories need not be factually true to be effective as long as they resonate as emotionally truthful. That's one thing that makes them so powerful and dangerous. One kind of danger: the power that story has to distract us from facts that don't quite fit the story arc. In my article about story and neurochemistry, I quote a physician who describes how the brain, "seeking its dopamine reward ... overlooks contradictory or conflicting information whenever possible." But there's a more nefarious kind of danger: the intentional use of story to obscure facts, deny facts, and posit outright falsehoods. This is a clear and present danger in the current era, and it's the inspiration for this series.

4. Stories are solutions-based.

In professional contexts -- for example, in branding and positioning -- the story-based approach for developing "messaging" has great value because of its focus on describing both the problem and solution the customer is facing. The focus is guaranteed because of the basic structure of a story:  act I (quest), act II (conflict), act III (resolution).  With the story-based approach to positioning, the challenge for businesses shifts from deciding which product features to highlight to articulating the relevant problem they are solving, and how.

5. Stories can create perceived value (and valuation).

And here's a related principle: stories can help businesses and other organizations create value -- and valuation. Again, it's a structural thing: between act II (conflict) and act III (resolution) is where the perceived value of the product is created. Why? Because the bigger the problem, the bigger the perceived value of the solution in the eyes of customers. And if the corporate storyteller is a startup, the same exercise might help increase the perceived valuation of the company in the eyes of its ultimate customer: the company that will someday acquire the startup

6. Stories are always about transformation.

A number of storytellers disagree with this -- notably, the great filmmaker Werner Herzog. To make his point, Herzog gives an example from his own work: the crazed anti-hero in "Aguirre, The Wrath of God," who, Herzog argues, is just as bad at the end of the film as he is at the beginning. I agree. In fact, Aguirre is worse at the end of the film. But one can argue that Aguirre's descent into hell on earth is a transformation of another kind.  Just as value is created between the second and fact, the hero of the story always changes.

In most professional contexts, the hero is always transformed for the better (no surprise). A great example, from Silicon Valley: experience the Sequoia Capital web site -- the digital home of the iconic venture capital firm -- which uses an interactive home page to honor the entrepreneurs who went on to become the titans of tech (people like Apple's Steve Jobs, Oracle's Larry Ellison, and Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page).

7. Stories can come in any length, in any kind of media.

The next three principles speak to the profound plasticity of story.  A story can be told in any media and at any length.  As long as it has story structure -- quest, conflict, resolution, leading to transformation -- a story can be as short as a slogan or a six-second Google ‘bumper ad’, or as long as a serialized novel or TV show (an interconnected series of stories). While these shorter forms of story have eluded many marketers, some of the greatest marketers have made their mark embracing the shorter forms. Reflect on the power of slogans like Nike's "Just do it" (three words), Obama's "Yes, we can" (three words), and Apple's "Think different" (just two words). Each of these phrases -- known to so many people -- moves the audience from quest, conflict, and resolution by minimizing the story content and masking some of its elements by making them implied.  

8. Stories connect people across great divides by shrinking space and time.

The great 20th-century Canadian communications theorist Harold Innis (mentor to the better-known Marshall McLuhan) wrote that fundamentally there are two types of media. First, there's media that is space-binding, shrinking the physical world by connecting people across geographical boundaries (similar in concept to McLuhan's "global village"). Second, there's media that is time-binding -- shrinking time by connecting people across historical boundaries (think art, history, and stories about the destiny of a people). This second type of media is perhaps more powerful yet seldom used by organizations and movements that might leverage the past in their storytelling. But with the fast-growing number of institutions that are struggling to be relevant in the 21st century, I believe that time-binding storytelling is the next frontier of communications.

9. Stories can morph into shared stories and lead to competing narratives.

In 2012, I collaborated with Deloitte's John Hagel and Suketu Gandhi on an article about the communication challenges facing the modern CEO. We took time to explain the difference between a single personal story and the aggregation of shared stories, which sometimes goes by the name of narrative.   A narrative can empower a business by enabling its stakeholders to relate to a common cause; think of the wide world of Apple enthusiasts who have vowed to forever "think different." A narrative can also embolden citizens from different factions, and different walks of life, to rally behind a socially common cause. In either case -- commercial or civic -- narratives that are strong tend to invite competition. Example: the mostly dystopian social narrative about artificial intelligence (AI), championed today by many influential people, including Elon Musk. In the other corner is a mostly utopian narrative about AI, championed today by many influential people, including Mark Zuckerberg. When speaking with clients who have shown an interest in this kind of meta marketing, I've shared this rule of thumb:  a narrative that is affirmative has a long-term advantage if it can be designed to give people something constructive to do rather than just something to oppose.

10.The most powerful and dangerous narratives are about inevitability.

Ok, now imagine you have a narrative -- connecting a large number of people -- that traverses both space and time, and that is coupled with the interesting notion that the resolution of the story is guaranteed. An obvious example: a religion where the end of the story is pre-ordained. It's easy to see why how the pitfalls of story can cause big trouble here. But it may be surprising to hear that the concept of inevitability is quite common in other worlds, including technology marketing. How this works: a startup intuits that it is part of a trend that appears to be unstoppable. By aligning with the trend, and by preparing to help lead it -- hiring the best people, developing a great solution -- the startup can create the perception that it too is unstoppable. That might not be enough to win the hearts and minds of investors. But if the story is well told, it might be enough to get a few meetings.

11. The big return -- recovering what was lost.  

OK, so we covered how stories originated in earlier times, and how that's both good and bad. And we covered how we are physically wired for story, which is also both good and bad. With that perspective, we looked at the elements of storycraft, and how the rules of the craft can be applied across different media, connecting people across geographical and historical divides. We then looked at how stories can metastasize into collective stories -- narratives -- and how these shared stories can be especially dangerous if not just powerful when anchored to the notion of inevitability.

Dark stuff, I'll admit, but don't mistake me for a pessimist. I'm actually hoping to contribute to a positive counter-narrative about the story of storytelling, and I'm taking inspiration from one of the features of tribal storytelling which has largely been ignored by modern marketers.  In a recent blog post for Medium, a friend and colleague of mine wrote about the interactive nature of primitive storytelling, where the storyteller engaged with listeners in a format that resembles "call and response" in later times.  I touched briefly on this topic a few articles ago, noting that the practice -- which you can witness today in Baptist church services, Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watchers -- has "the effect of making the experience more engaging ... and of keeping the storyteller more grounded, more honest." The question is, how do you bring back "call and response" in the modern era and keep the digital storyteller more honest?

My view: a big modern problem deserves a big modern solution. In my next post, I will explore the new tools that have emerged to aid and protect modern storytellers and well as everyone they are trying to engage.