Calling B.S. Part 4: Storytelling

Telling the Truth About Storytelling

< The Full Batch of Calling B.S.

Once upon a time, people worked in a wide variety of noble occupations. Recently, however, lots of folks across all different sorts of professions have come to insist their work as fiduciaries, architects, roller coaster designers, contractors, doctors and marketers can be subsumed under a single meta-description: "storyteller."

Under this banner, architects are storytellers who simply use bricks instead of words to "make a space into a place." When it comes to neurosurgeons or invasive cardiologists, think storyteller first, physician second: "The storytelling is really where the medicine is." Need to entrust your life savings to a financial advisor? You need a storyteller not a stockbroker (and hopefully one who is not too effective at spinning a Bernie Madoff-style fairy tale). Bakers tell stories through sweets. Not only are bankruptcy lawyers storytellers, there are specific books to advise them on how to become even better storytellers.

No profession has embraced the storytelling conceit as wholeheartedly as marketing. It is actually somewhat of a shock to find someone who works in marketing who does not reference storytelling when describing her or his craft. A colleague who recently attended a global marketing conference in Bangkok relayed that every single presentation at least touched on storytelling. There's data storytelling ("turning numbers into narratives"!). There's a sold out "Brand Storytelling Content Expedition." There's an "invitation only" conference on the Future of Storytelling. And so on. One self-proclaimed storyteller has gone so far as to assert that "storytelling is the source code of our humanity." If so, perhaps it is time for the robots to take over.

storytelling

At the same time that other professions self-identity as storytellers, we have literal storytellers, that is, writers of fiction, crafting stories in which characters describe themselves as storytellers. In "The Naturals," novelist and short story master Sam Lipsyte creates a real estate developer who asserts, "The main thing is we’re trying to tell a story here. A lakefront narrative." He then adds a professional wrestler who notes, "You don’t get it at all, buddy. It’s not about wrestling. It’s about stories. We’re storytellers." 

The converse is true as well. As life imitates art, CEOs are now retaining fiction writers to craft Potemkin corporate and personal hagiographies. The celebrated creative consultancy Wolff Olins has gone so far as to hire Mohsin Hamid, one of the world's most gifted living novelists as its "Chief Storytelling Officer"! And he's not alone. LinkedIn lists scores of corporate scops who claim the title.