Is There Too Much Storytelling?

Oct 09 2014

Stefan Sagmeister shocked many in the creative industries earlier this year, when he dismissed the current trend of ‘storytelling’ in advertising and design as “bullshit”.  He particularly objected to the way that ‘storytelling’ has been latched on to by the corporate world (in the same way that ‘content’ has in the digital sphere). In one interview, he rages about a rollercoaster designer who calls himself a storyteller saying, “No fuckhead, you are not a storyteller, you’re a rollercoaster designer!”. And he has a point, as being a rollercoaster designer is a job that many would like, so why would anyone need to call it something else?

It’s great to see him puncturing some of the hype around storytelling, which has been over-played by many. In fact, his outburst is part of a backlash against the trend that I have seen emerging in advertising, market research and other communication professionals.

The Presentation Zen blog also discussed whether ‘we should be suspicious of stories’ in an article earlier this year, although the argument of the article is not so much against storytelling as to warn against the reliance on personal testimony and anecdotal evidence. There is always a need to be skeptical about arguments based on individual cases, although it can be difficult for us to be objective when we get caught up in a compelling narrative.

We have argued before on this blog that numbers are slippy, while stories are sticky, and you will see story as a central principle in any book that talks about communication in business or personal life (including Made To Stick by the Heath brothers). But is that something we should embrace, or something that we should be wary of?

In his book Storytelling: Bewitching the modern mind, Christian Salmon argues that modern politics speaks the language of fiction more than it speaks the language of the real or possible. His concern is that stories are moving from being spontaneous cultural practices and sharing of ideas, to being methods to control and manipulate. He cites examples from politics, the military, business and marketing. Unsurprisingly, George W. Bush appears several times, along with figures such as Steve Jobs, various management ‘gurus’, French philosophers and, of course, Shakespeare!

While Christian Salmon outlines a clear case against the abuse of storytelling by many people, I don’t believe he has a coherent argument against story itself. Like all things in life, story can be misused and abused. However, it’s undeniable that even when you have a vast amount of data to support a point of view and strong evidence to argue a case, it is much easier to communicate your message through story.

As Kendall Haven demonstrates in Story Proof, humans are ‘wired’ for stories. Evolutionary biology and psychology shows that we have a predisposition to think in terms of story (and more simply in terms of cause and effect) as I argue in Chapter 5 of Brand esSense. Stories are everywhere in life and are the basis of most human communication and all communication that changes behaviour. Today’s news of the dating of cave paintings in Indonesia to at least 35,000 years ago, suggesting that such communication may be much older than we realise in human history, only reinforces the importance of story in making us human.

My take on the hype and backlash is that storytelling isn’t special. It’s not creatives or communicators who need to be ‘storytellers’. All humans are designed to be storytellers and think in those terms. Always look behind the story to ensure that it is backed up by good solid evidence (if someone is trying to persuade you of a point of view). But don’t reject stories because they can manipulate, use them to make your arguments clearer and avoid a boring data dump.

To be sceptical is human and wise. To be a storyteller is human and unavoidable.

REFERENCES

Storytelling: Bewitching the modern mind by Christian Salmon

Made To Stick by Chip & Dan Heath

Story Proof: The science behind the startling power of story by Kendall Haven

Brand esSense: Using sense, symbol and story to design brand identity by Neil Gains

‘Sagmeister and the “bullshit” around storytelling’ from Creative Review, 24 July 2014

‘Should we be suspicious of stories?’ from Presentation Zen blog, 12 April 2014

’35,00 year-old Indonesian cave paintings suggest that art came out of Africa’ from The Guardian, 9 October 2014

2 responses so far

  1. Great article. Agree that ‘storytelling’ is universal but has been open to mis-use in the corporate world, thus causing critics to dismiss the entire concept. I’ve see the term story mis-used for anecdotes and even just well structured arguments. Like many things it’s about finding a balance between solid, reliable evidence and creative techniques that help get the message to stick. Stories are just one way to do this and can work well if used in the right context.

  2. Caroline

    Thanks & glad you agree! The advantage in research is that we normally have a lot of evidence, its just the narrative that’s sometimes (or often) missing …

    Thanks for sharing the blog post,

    Neil

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