Is Storytelling now C.R.A.P.?

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Is my life’s pursuit of great storytelling now defunct, cast into the bin of “that used to be a good idea?”

I ask this because the word Storytelling is now everywhere, used for all kinds of reasons, and thus makes me ask: has the word lost its meaning like so many other C.R.A.P. words out there? (Keep reading and you’ll understand what C.R.A.P. is.)

How can this be? Stories are as old as dirt.

We all know that stories have been with us from the very beginning of humankind. It’s only recently—in the last few decades—that stories have been dissected not only for their structure and creation, but also for the effect they have on us individually and collectively. Yuval Noah HarariJonathan GottschallPaul Zak…a number of authors and scientists have done their homework and researched where story comes from and how it works in our brains and bodies.

I love this science and spout it every chance I get. It makes so much sense that stories propel us forward, help us to think and feel differently.

So why are people in some quarters starting to turn up their noses at storytelling?

I think I know the answer. It’s not about the substance or effect of a good story. It’s about the word itself and a misuse of the form.

Storytelling is C.R.A.P.

Yes, you heard that from me. The founder of StoryStudio Chicago and co-founder of Story Mode. Geez, “story” is in the title of pretty much everything in my life.

But Corporate America and capitalism have a way of usurping a perfectly good word and turning it into a meaningless one.

If you know me and Beth, then you know we hate C.R.A.P., which stands for Corporate Rhetoric And Pomposity. It refers to all those overused, generic, “I’m too lazy to find the right word” words. Alignment. Synergy. Impactful. Best in Class.

Sure, these all used to be perfectly fine words until Corporate America grabbed hold and used them to death, beating all meaning out of them.

Do I now have to add Storytelling to this list? 😢

Maybe it’s my fault.

I am beginning to understand that a large part of the problem is nomenclature.

Business has coopted the word and I am partially to blame because I have been teaching what I know about stories to people who want to use them at work.

But of course, we all already use bits of story in much of what we say all day. I am thrilled if the only message my students get is to use details instead of generalities. Is that enough to be called storytelling? I think it can be. If you give me a detail then I have enough in my head to start to make up my own story. Like the science says, give me a few details that matter and I will enjoy filling in the rest myself.

When I use the word “story” in a workshop or with clients, I use it loosely. In addition to describing a traditional story with a “this happened then this happened” plot, I am often referring to a microstory: a metaphor that captures the right image and emotion; or an image itself that says all we need to know with one look. Even a single sentence can contain a whole story.

Story is a conversation.

Conversation requires me as the creator to give you some key information. Then you as the receiver have to do something with that information. Science tells us that your brain might offer up an emotion or perhaps a memory of your own that pertains to the story. This connects us and is what gives this method of communication its power.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time but what really got my goat was a piece by Perul Seghal in the New Yorker where she laments the overuse and misuse of story and plot.

When I initially read her story (see what I did there!) I thought she was arguing against a good story’s power. But as I reread it, I began to understand that she is, like me, upset about the way we toss around the word story.

She writes,

Sometimes, as Wittgenstein suggested, a troublesome word doesn’t need to be retired or humiliated; it just needs to be sent out for cleaning before being returned to circulation. That’s a tricky task when it comes to a word as shop-soiled as “story,” ….

I would like to to go on railing about how dare people misuse one of the most important words in my life. Instead, I am going for a walk, then will re-read Seghal’s excellent essay, then will put on my Pollyanna hat and make a list of ways to reclaim the power and majesty of STORY.

Join me?

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