Beware simplified storytelling

By Limor Shiponi

Storytelling is getting into the hands of demagogues tapping into individual’s dreams for success, power, riches and happiness. Here are two examples I’ve cropped off twitter today:

‘Power to the people’ attached to ‘how we will control’ with the following hashtags makes one think that storytelling is part of a dominating game one can win through engineering a manipulation to a pre-determined outcome. Possible, but not storytelling and cannot be done by anyone i.e. ‘the people’.

Simple is something everyone seems to believe lately. The 8 ‘simple’ tips mentioned in the link are not simple at all which is something I can say about storytelling in general – it requires knowledge and practice like anything else in life.

Storytelling is not the ultimate remedy for anything, not a business quickwin, a super-weapon or the pathway to heaven. It won’t help you mess-up other people’s brains in your objectives favor and will not win you a night with Madonna – which ever of those you are dreaming about.

Would you think the same about music, theatre, dance, painting, sculpturing or photography? no? so the same goes for storytelling.

10 thoughts on “Beware simplified storytelling”

  1. Thank you Limor, you have stated what I have been feeling for quite a while now. Suddenly, the word “storytelling” has been adopted by business executives in every arena. It is not a panacea, a magic bullet, and it must be employed authenically in business or not at all.

    Karen Chace

  2. Hi Sean –
    What you do comes out of storytelling into business. What those I’m talking about are doing comes out of business with no serious intention to invest time in knowing storytelling. If they would, their language would be different. You see the limitations because you know the field. They don’t want to believe there are limitations, so why learn the field?

  3. Not just commerce, politics too – there’s been a spate of stuff in the media in the UK about how ‘the narrative’ or ‘the story’ has taken over from real politics, with the implication being that somehow ‘the narrative’ is no substitute for real, solid policies, and thus inferior in some way. Leaving aside for a moment the thought that this probably tells you more about the coalition’s increasing use of ‘marketing speak’ than anything else, a couple of things occur to me.
    One, that at least some of the negativity around this may well arise from the ‘I could have told you that’ effect. It only takes a moment’s thought to realise that any audience will be far more interested and engaged by ‘stories’ than ‘policies’.
    Two, to the extent that our understanding of the world and our place in it is built out of the narratives we construct, both politicians and marketeers are right in recognising that stories (how ever defined) hold great power and can, indeed, mess with people’s minds.
    Not a particularly comfortable assertion for us practitioners of what we naturally wish to regard as a wholly benign art, but one that I think it is ingenuos, dangerous even, to deny.
    The issue, surely, is not about the power but how it is used and how the responsibilities it confers are met?
    I don’t think any of this is particularly new, we’re talking about very fundamental things to do with how we construct and manipulate meaning – in some ways I think what’s more interesting is how the various communication and social technologies we now employ are making us far more aware of a lot of the mechanisms involved.
    As Kieren Egen said, “A fact may be the smallest unit of information, but a story is the smallest unit of meaning” – this may be the information age, but the real battles are over the meanings constructed out of that information – the more people realise this, the more they will be interested in stories and storytelling.
    Whether this is a good thing or not is another question entirely 🙂

    1. What seeme good might be bad and what seems bad might turn-out good – we know the story… 🙂 Hi Allan, I’m really happy you’re here.

      There is so much to say about ‘marketing talk’, manipulation and how face-to-face storytellers who can’t really influence huge masses meet this subject in the real-world (sigh). It could also make an interesting dicussion among such storytellers. I’m quite sure that those who have never met this position would be rather surprised that it’s even an ‘issue’. Information age is not valid really, I wonder who coined that expression and thinks it’s such a great idea…

      As we know, life is stronger than any kind of artificial intervention. Eventually we’ll see the correction. What bothers me is the price humanity will pay until that happens. Have you seen ‘The Century of Self’ series by the BBC?

      1. Hi Limor, very glad to be here – I’ve missed this kind of discussion, can’t imagine what I was thinking of for so long 🙂

        Interesting that you mention ‘The Century of the Self’ series – I was absolutely glued to it, but watched with mounting horror. Truly one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen on TV – was very surprised that it seemed to pass with hardly a ripple here, and pretty much everyone I talked to about it at the time didn’t get why I was so upset by it…perhaps you have to be a storyteller, or people don’t like thinking on meta-levels….interesting, in passing, to note that there seems to be a growing movement in clinical psychology to replace Freud’s ideas with evidence-based, experimentally tested ideas. Can’t come too soon for me 🙂

        I share your disquiet over the price we’re all paying in the meantime, but am ultimately (long term) optimistic.

        Don’t know who coined the term ‘information age’, but Claude Shannon who first used ‘information’ in a strict technical sense was making a serious philosphical point, and was very careful to separate ‘information’ from ‘meaning’ for e.g. ‘m,nsmnda,snda,nd,,n’ has a higher ‘information’ content, is Shannon’s sense, than the preceding sentence. The fact that it’s ‘meaningless’ in the commonly understood sense of the word is neither here nor there for Shannon’s purposes. This matters, because, briefly, ‘no Shannon, no modern telecommunications or computing, no internet’…so ‘information age’ is valid, albeit in a rather more narrow sense than is commonly understood.

        I’m not just being pedantic here (well, maybe a bit, ex-philosophy graduate, what can I say?) I think these elisions (or in this case radical transformation) of meaning, when terms pass from one, highly specialised and tightly circumscribed realm into a wider public discourse, matter a great deal…especially when the shift is largely un-remarked. The tricks that are played by those ‘in the know’ (Madison Avenue being a prime example) rely on ignorance, to a greater or lesser extent.

        (more of my thoughts on the evils and glories of advertising here : http://www.
        if you’re interested…)

        Time for a cuppa, I reckon 🙂

        1. Horror was my experience too as was the notion that people didn’t seem to care – which made it even worse. It took me several days to stop thinking about it all the time but it hasn’t left, really. A week later I got to watch ‘Shutter Island’ without knowing in advance what it is about and got really angry about the idea of even making such a film. Can’t figure out how it is good for the people.

          I don’t know if it strikes only storytellers (we’re too small a discussion to get into statistics) but what I do know is that although storytellers are well aware of the possibility of messing-up with people’s brains, the way we develop along the years keeps us away from there. There is something about the oral art and physical presence that makes you eventually balance the entire act to the better, even if the stories, the audience, you and the entire event are in pain of some sort, even if it’s very difficult.

          Evidence-based, experimentally tested ideas in clinical psychology might turn out refreshing… 🙂

          You can’t really be pessimistic if you are a storyteller, especially when empires are on the discussion table. Whether good or evil – none of them survived (speaking about long-term thoughts…)

          I’m trying to capture Shannon’s sense of ‘information’. If I’m getting what you’re saying, any kind of content that is not physical material, which can be captured, stored and transferred not necessarily in any particular order is information and should be treated seriously for those possibilities? Am I getting it right?

          Yes, ignorance does play a role there, combined with the promised legendary potential… just imagine… those words in this context send a shiver down my spine.

          Going to read your thoughts. Puff!

          1. Haven’t seen ‘Shutter Island’ yet; given you’re the only other person I’ve encountered who shares my reaction to ‘Century of the Self’ I don’t think I’ll bother !

            I think the thing about the ‘oral art and physical presence’ (and it has to be physical, doesn’t work any other way) that makes the difference is the imaginative engagement – it’s a co-creative experience if it’s working properly, therefore there’s an implicit sense of shared responsibility that provides a remarkably tough and flexible ‘safety net’…although it’s rarely identified as such. I have a feeling it goes a lot deeper than the superficial layers of ‘meaning’ carried by the words, operating on a primarily emotional level….but then, I have a tendancy to think of stories in terms of ’emotional pictures’

            Shannon’s original insight was to apply boolean logic to the behavior of electrical circuits, so he was working in a very abstract, mathematical realm, and he equated information with entropy. Random messages have a higher entropy (information content) because if there’s a gap you can’t infer what’s missing, thus it takes more actual information to communicate that message, even though conventional usage would term it ‘meaningless’.
            Conversely low entropy/high meaning messages can be understood even if there’s chunks missing….to take a (not entirely:) random example, show almost anyone in the UK a single frame of the currrent TV coverage of the Royal Wedding and they’d be able to reconstruct the event. Different individuals may still disagree violently about the ‘meanings’ attached to the event/message, though. Traditional stories must be one of the lowest entropy forms of all! In effect it boils down to ‘a strong signal will always get through the background static’, which seems obvious, but Shannon actually proved it mathematically which has all sorts of philosophical implications and imbues ‘information age’ with so many layers of irony I can hardly bear to think about it.

          2. I share the “tough and flexible ‘safety net'” idea. I never thought about it until one of my team members told me that’s what he recognized when he watches me tell. I started looking at other storytellers through that lens – it’s not always there. It depends a lot on the level of imaginative engagement the storyteller has reached and whether he or she feels safe with it, and how they feel during a specific telling. Skillfulness can hide its absence from the untrained eye.

            What’s interesting about what you’re telling me concerning Shannon’s work is the thought that “low entropy messages can be understood even if there’s a chunk missing”. I totally agree that traditional stories are part of that group and it’s not only about the text, it’s about deeper patterns of performance, the making, a codification. Here we got to code again. I say it all connects and I say it can be proven. I just don’t feel it is the right thing to do since I find no reason to prove something that works so beautifully without needing science’s approval.

            There was a time I was eager to do so. No more.

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