The spooky side of stories
October 26, 2016
After a decade of breathlessly promoting storytelling as the solution to all communication problems, we are now "discovering" that storytelling has a downside, too? Please.
One of the few downsides of being immersed in rhetorical theory every day all day is that the amorality of it gets on your clothing, and you have to wash it off.
Speechwriters know that audiences are persuaded by various techniques whether they're employed by defenders of democracy or demagogues—or demagogues posing as defenders of democracy. As we've relearned through the collapse of the story-fueled reputation of the med-tech firm Theranos and its CEO Elizabeth Holmes, storytelling can be used to make a brand, or to make one up.
"As the business world has hurried to get up to speed on storytelling, its advantages over other forms of communication and persuasion have been widely touted," observes business writer Jonathan Gottschall in a piece on "the Dark Side of Storytelling" in the Harvard Business Review. "But like any powerful tool, humans can wield stories for good or ill. It’s time to grapple with the dark side of story."
Google "Harvard Business Review storytelling" and on page one you get, "Use Storytelling to Explain Your Company's Purpose," "Storytelling That Moves People," "The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool," "The Art of Purposeful Storytelling," "Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling." And now it's time to grapple with the dark side of story.
In America, we've been grappling with the dark side of story forever—and from the earliest age. Did it make us more cynical about our national roots when we learned that the whole George Washington-chopping-down-the-cherry-tree-and-confessing-because-he-could-not-tell-a-lie was made up out of whole cloth? You know, it probably did. When we told our daughter Scout about Santa Claus, she stopped believing in God, because, "I used to talk to God about Santa."
European speechwriters, perhaps sadder and wiser because of experience or perhaps just less admiring of hustlers than this country, which was partly built on them, have always reacted skeptically to storytelling lectures by me and other American speechwriting goons. They know our speeches are more entertaining than theirs and they worry they're more persuasive. That's why they invite Americans over there in the first place. But they simply cannot stomach the kinds of stories we ask their leaders to tell, even when we give them rare examples of their own leaders telling them. (Like the Dutch Minister of Defense, explaining that he "Chose a Gun" as his instrument of peace because of a story his father told him when he was little.)
By and large, the Europeans aren't buying it. Storytelling, especially the personal narrative stuff that's fashionable in America, is suspect to them—and more importantly, to the leaders they serve, who generally find it some combination of boastful, treacly and manipulative. I think their attitude about it is encapsulated in the story LBJ's speechwriter Liz Carpenter used to tell, about handing him a campaign speech that turned on a great Aristotle quote. "Aw hell," Johnson said, marking up the page, "nobody'll know who the hell Aristotle is." He delivered the quote, but he changed the attribution: "As my dear ole daddy used to say …"
See, in America we think that's funny. In Europe, not so much. I think it's funny. But I think the Europeans have a point.
I once attended a storytelling workshop inside a large and well-respected company. As an educational exercise, the storytelling consultant broke the big communication staff into groups and gave them the directive to make up a story that involved a product being invented as the result of a problem being faced by one human being. All sorts of heartwarming yarns emerged from the groups, of children with cancer and parents coming up with life-saving drugs through kitchen products and trial and error.
Moved by the power of it all, one of the communication staffers asked, "Can we do that?"
"Do what?" asked the storytelling consultant.
"Make stuff up!" enthused the staffer.
No, you cannot tell a lie.
It's so hard to find powerful, seemingly clean stories inside organizations, that writers will be tempted to go with anything they find that they can get their leader to tell. They should run it by their inner European, whose burdensome virtue is a longer view of history and thus the future: As true as this story may sound today, how will its theme hold up five years years from now, after two mergers, a layoff and a public offering?
"Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth." As my dear ole daddy used to say.