Storytelling: A Cliché?
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Storytelling: A Cliché?

You know who’s a storyteller? – Shakespeare.

Strident? Yes, and I am guilty of stereotype, Irish-descent and wont to spin yarns, also prone to drink, and start a quarrel or two… or three. Perhaps I’m being defensive, hyperbolic, or as my girlfriend is fond of saying, “precious.” But in my defense please note that I didn’t punctuate the title “Storytelling: A Cliche?” with an exclamation! …I’m posing the question. And you should know, I’ve had an epiphany.

Also, I realize that at once laying claim to Shakespeare and an Irish heritage is ironic.

A day at FlowTown doesn’t go by without receiving an article, or call-to-action, or random entreaty to become a better “storyteller.” And if it’s not already clear, this kind of grinds my nerves. Albeit, not so much since the epiphany.

A few examples (a conference presentation, a blog post, and a workshop):






  • “When the Story is the Story – Storytelling with Clients”
  • “Storytelling For Business, Part3; Convert customers into brand evangelists with your story.”
  • “CTRL Collective, Storytelling Workshop, presented by Red Bull and GOOD”
I'm planning on going to this one BTW (:()

UPDATE: thoughtful presentation by GOOD and LURN
AMPHIKO ACADEMY is an interesting program to help social impact entrepreneurs

Now that our “life’s story” is curated on social-media, and at work we have a shared “brand story,” then “story” is becoming diluted I think. Ask yourself the next time you intend to use the label: story – does this have a beginning, middle, and end? Is there a moral, a central question or conflict that requires a resolution? Do the characters serve a purpose, like a muse, a hero, a Greek-chorus, or a comic foil? And if the answer is no, then maybe it’s not a story… maybe.

This is not to say that branding as a profession or as a social construct is wrong or inherently bad, nor the only culprit in tipping “story” towards cliche, oh no. My nerves are particularly ground when I see someone claim to be a “visual storyteller,” and their work while it may be interesting, and even beautiful, hardly contains anything resembling a story.

You know who’s a visual storyteller? – Banksy.

When we started FlowTown Films I thought storytelling was what set us apart. And for a while, it did. I argued that people internalize concepts when the information is wrapped in story, and even though this was only ten-years ago I got a lot of eye-rolls and blank-stares.

One-day early on, in San Francisco, in traffic, returning from filming an interview, I struck up a conversation with the client. I was describing the story I saw unfolding, and she said, “Oh yeah, we’re encouraged to put everything into story now.” And I thought, “Finally! They get me now.” – That’s an anecdote by the way: a short and amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person.

Which brings us to the epiphany. Ta Da.

The problem is one of nomenclature. When we say, “story” it should contain the aforementioned dramatic components, arc, character, etc. Otherwise it’s probably a presentation, or speech. Which certainly can or should contain story elements like anecdotes, historical context, supposition, and even morality, but they aren’t stories. Some speeches are amazing. They’re emotional. They create movements and touch people like most stories can’t, but they still aren’t stories, right?

For instance take this TED talk. It’s a presentation. It’s eloquent. It has beautiful story elements: anecdote, allusion, metaphor, humor, context, and character. BUT it is not a story. And a few of her premises are mental… and as an aside, my girlfriend shared this video with me and my initial reaction to it got me into a lot of trouble with her – pretty sure this is where “you’re being precious” entered the conversation.

…Seriously tho, the hero is not the audience! Can’t be. Can it?

If you do have the time… watch. I think that her thesis is quite good, and I like her graphing technique, which is mind-expanding and a revelation. However the graph is a fantastic tool for diagramming a “speech.” Two speeches actually, two of the greatest given in modern history, MLK’s I Have A Dream, and Steve Job’s iPhone Launch.

The diagram for a story however still looks like this…

I watched this interview with Ira Glass, and that’s when the epiphany hit me. We need clear definitions demarking: story, presentation, and speech. He lays down some super storytelling truth… You need a powerful ancedote AND a compeling moment of reflection, “Why am I listening to this?”

Be ruthless. If one of the two components fall down, you either don’t have a story, or you don’t have a good story. And I do want to be careful not to insult anyone’s desire to do storytelling, but if you’re going to wear the mantel of storyteller then I think you owe it to your audience to study and practice the craft.

Also, I want you dear reader to consider, if we broaden the definition of story to include an array of possibility does its power diminish? Could be, but done with the right intention, might a broader definition also make story a better tool to communicate with? …Maaaaaaybe. We’ll see because I don’t think my little rant is going to change the popular course of storytelling. And lastly, I probably need to set my ego aside more often. I think my girlfriend would approve.

So there you have it

my thesis, the conflict, the epiphany, a few characters, but not a story.

Post Script: a favorite scene from Exit Thru The Gift Shop

Banksy: Uhmmm… You know… it was at that point that I realized that maybe Thierry wasn’t actually a filmmaker, and he was maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera.

Banksy: I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.

Do keep telling stories. It’s important. Ole! – MoDMaN