Storytelling, mass media and noise to market

So it happens that just now I got to read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. It’s a must read for anyone who is trying to figure out what’s happening in mass media, that’s for sure. For me, reading the book was a double-layer experience; the second layer dealing with figuring out something about the way many people wish to perceive storytelling today.

Storytelling is NOT part of mass media. It never was and will never be for a very simple reason – it doesn’t scale. If it’s about “telling” it’s about the physical world, using spoken words in the face of others, being influenced by their presence (read: multi-layered reciprocal real time experience). You can’t duplicate storytellers to make more money; you can only charge more per event – if someone is willing to pay.

Surrounded by an industrial mindset and thoughts about scales and riches, storytellers are trying to cope because no – no one is willing to pay more per storytelling event. Some time ago an American storyteller told me “if you don’t have a CD, a book or some other product to sell, over here you are nobody”.

On the contrary to mass media…

Storytelling enjoys the blessings of the local, the regional and does not see them as a limitation or a curse. It celebrates fragmentation and niches, it was never part of the hit culture, there are no God-like storytelling figures (although plenty of Gods are mentioned in the texts), no blockbusters. The best test of quality in storytelling is not box-office gross. If that was true most storytelling festivals would not exist.

Storytelling niches are defined by geography and interest alike and the entire art-form is about a sort of ‘long tail’ to start with. We enjoy unlimited shelf-space because we are oral and the true roots of this phenomena don’t go back to the 19th century and the first giant centralized warehouses as claims Anderson about mass media but to the human brain’s capabilities. No storytelling supermarkets thank you, no credit cards and no cultural obesity.

Source: Burningwell.org

What went wrong with the perception of storytelling?

The industrial revolution and the way many of us have come to appreciate things and think about them as worth our while. Notice the language “the world’s best” “top” “leading” “cutting edge” “state of the art” “most” “#1″ and all the rest. That’s hit-culture language and besides other things it indicates the need of means to get there and the required caliber of earnings to stay there. The richer, the truer. We storytellers don’t even want to get there. We can’t even measure in that language because it’s not relevant to our art.

Even long tail language isn’t that relevant to storytelling when it comes to measurement because there is a limitation to what I’ll call here ‘noise to market’ when people are actually sitting in front of you. Stashing a bad track living on some remote database is very different than stashing a performer in action. We can’t afford to be in that situation so we need to be way better than average.

Democracy and art

Anderson speaks about democratizing the means of production and distribution. Well, storytelling was always democratic and democracy is about the rule of the mass to start with. If a storyteller is not doing a good job, believe me, the mass will acknowledge that in a few short moments… talking about means of production and distribution – tell stories, tell them all around. No one has ever stopped anyone from doing that unless living under a regime afraid of free thought and expression. Even then – people tell stories and those around hear them. We don’t tell globally in any case, we are about local, remember?

The noise to market evolutionary “storytelling” tools

All things calling themselves storytelling tools besides the oral form – scale. From a hit-culture and long-tale culture points of view, that’s a blessing. The hit culture thinks about efficiency, distribution and revenue margins and the long-tail culture thinks about exactly the same only with a different business model and more decentralized style. Is it really so? I’m not sure. Long tail earnings do lean on capabilities kept for those with means to create large systems and filtering – not me or most of you, what?

All those tools are about getting noise to market and keeping it there forever. They don’t demonstrate the democratization of storytelling but rather the shortest possible way to craft and distribute a story (in the better cases) – by anyone with access to the tools. No one is putting any of the outcomes to the test of quality or value these days. Instead we get a lousy explanation that can be generalized in “whatever I think storytelling is, it is”. Instead of looking at the quality of the outcome they are praising production and distribution, creating shorter noise to market paths and calling it “freedom of expression”. None of that is storytelling but they insist it is.

What’s with the word storytelling that everyone wants to use?

It has a ‘sexy’ factor. It sounds interpersonal and soft, it sounds once upon a time and it sounds comforting like tasty foods. But hey, if you are calling the outcome of an iPhone app storytelling and insist on it being more evolutionary than the art of a storyteller we (storytellers) don’t like it. We don’t “produce” and we don’t produce “products”. The reciprocal nature of our art cannot and need not be compared to share buttons because they don’t create the same effect or anything close to it. A kid playing with an iPad story-something software is not a storyteller not only because he is not using the necessary skills and creating a storytelling outcome, but also and mainly because he doesn’t have the emotional capacity to create an ongoing reciprocal event of the story kind. Besides, what’s the rush? Why do kids have to get noise to market in any case? What’s so great about that?

In the storytelling kingdoms, storytellers need to be skilled because otherwise their partners aka listeners and stories will not be able to perform their part or enjoy the event; stories have to be worth many people’s while and listeners represent the power of democracy not through standardized rating systems. The storytelling experience is way more intricate than “positive” “negative” and “neutral”.

The good news?

As goes the famous story – “this too shall pass” and for a very simple reason all this “evolutionary storytelling” is neglecting: the ruling factor in storytelling (i.e. the pain/delight “button” marketers are looking for) is not freedom of expression or the shortest noise to market path. What is it? sorry, I’m not a bottom line kind of person when it comes to storytelling. Go really find out.

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20 thoughts on “Storytelling, mass media and noise to market

  1. “We don’t ‘produce’ and we don’t produce ‘products.'” THANK YOU. Or perhaps we are our own products. “If you want to work on your Art,” Chekhov said, “Work on your life.” Making meaning through story is making sense of self in relation to others, alone and in community, in space and in time. I have yet to figure out how to make a living in this way, sadly. But at least I know that I AM living.

    • We are of our own making I think :) We’ve been given a life, now lets see what we can make out of them. Can make a living out of storytelling, ask me how :) I love your last insight.

  2. Pingback: Storytelling Business Social Media Marketing PR & Technology Curated Stories July 10, 2011

  3. Well, yes and…

    Story can scale to the moment and part of respecting my audience is providing them ways to continue to feel the energy of a storytelling experience. I’m one of the first people to bring oral storytelling (in its recorded form) to the Internet via Storyteller.net. In some cases, I have also brought/bring storytelling to others through the purchase or taking of stories on CD, mp3 or video. While these things/formats are an echo of the storytelling experience, they’re still “story enough” for the listener/viewer to engage themselves or others. In all cases, I hope my work in those formats and on the web lead people to some live storytelling only best experienced in singular, co-creative moments.

    Yes, I am okay with my storytelling being a product if that is where an audience needs me to be at the start of our journey. Baby-steps forward are good as they learn that story and storytelling are so much deeper than the latest thing to buy. I was done with the “I’m an artiste!” many years ago. An artist without an audience is irrelevant to the world. It is selfish of me to horde my gift of art because I am afraid the audience might see me as a commodity. There’s great freedom in walking outside with others rather than demand they all come to my proper tent. And, I do make a living at being a storyteller. Onions and layers and all that.

    On the other hand, I am at this moment writing another mini-book about a specific area of storytelling that is most often botched by business storytellers and the like. My mini-book so far is at 60000 words and growing. Sigh. Printed, that is about 40 pages of an average 6×9 book. I just can’t “scale down” what I need to say. I try, but it just doesn’t work in the long run. My “mini-book” is still going to take a lot of effort to absorb and apply. Oh, for the days of “Storytelling in a Can!” Oh, wait, those days never existed.

    What I know is this: Eventually people are going to discover that the marketing-sexy storytelling methodology is a lot of work to sustain. All good things take a lot of work- effective use of story and storytelling (two different things)is no exception. The rewards of good story work are immense and (in my opinion) long lasting. Who’s willing to invest?

    Thanks for this post.

    -Sean

    • I’m sighing and smiling together with you, mainly because we both sent ourselves on a search to find the connection between worlds and eventually found out we are the bridges between them, not anything else. The only difference is that I chose to play the Joan of Arc part (no saint though) and was willing to pay the heavy price only to finally see the day when I present myself in a business meeting as a storyteller and get “hmm.. interesting…tell me more about how this connects” from CEOs and marketing VPs sitting at the same meeting. Was not easy you can imagine but now I’m on the other end of the tunnel and the air is much clearer. I’ll just need to learn how to drop my sword quietly…

      I don’t know enough about the book you are writing but if you are asking who is willing to invest and it’s about marketing – they are not, unless their executive planner decides it’s time they sit down and learn seriously. In most cases they are sure they know better.

        • I remember reading one of those messages – about how storytellers treat any kind of attempt connecting with the world of gaming. I’ve heard you speak at an NSN conference about how storytellers treat the digital world. I too have my share of admonition when it comes to my peers. I’m also trying to help/move them. Not easy.

    • Yep, unless you go for a very common denominator which makes people think they cannot afford not to buy the product.

        • “Six stories that will help you earn your dream partner – for life” or “Storytelling your way to a million dollars in nine months”.

          Buying?

          • We have different perceptions of product. I have many CD’s of storytelling out- most of those sell after events, both busienss telling and performance telling.

            The closest thing I have to anything that you have mentioned is my book: “DaddyTeller: How to be a Hero to Your Kids and Teach Them What’s Really Important by Telling Them One Simple Story at a Time.”

            Am I making a million dollars with that book? No. Do people buy it in bulk once they read it in order to give it to their friends? Yes. Has the book paid for itself in bookings? Yes? Commercial product meant to appeal to the masses? Yes. Created/Creates opportunities to spread the Credo of Oral Storytelling as a basic life skill? Yes.

            Peace-

          • I don’t think we have different perceptions for products. What I’m saying is – oral performance is not product and business wise, it can’t scale like mass media. All the rest you’ve mentioned – is. My problem is with the fact that the industrial mass media mind-set and environment is pushing storytellers to believe: they are doing something wrong; they are out of the game; they don’t “get it”; they must have a product and other thoughts that take their attention away from being better at what they are supposed to do best.

            If a storyteller is able to juggle it all – that’s great. But if not, I’d rather push her to do her best as a storyteller. My opinion is known even if it’s not popular – I don’t think there is enough great storytelling to go around and to start with, it’s storytellers’ responsibility.

  4. Hi Limor and Sean,
    I really enjoyed reading your comments. Seems like some of us are struggling with this storytelling-product-thing. Count me in :-)

    Sean says “selling a product does not make you into a success here or anywhere else. The sales come after the relationship, rarely before”.
    I relate to that.
    Limor, And as for “the air being much clearer at the end of the tunnel”… Please show me the way (without me losing my Side -aka Financial Director of my smallest story company ever:-)

    • Hi Raf, thanks. Yes, product issues are a struggle and what Sean wrote is very true. About showing you the way – I’m not sure I can but I can try, yes? About the wife I can’t promise anything :) to be continued…

    • Hi Raf!!
      The process of relationship building is probably the same in any ideation of storytelling. I’d hope that whatever product I end up putting out there builds up the lives of those who might pick it up. In the end, I can only do what I think is true to myself.

  5. Enjoyed reading the post and comments, thanks Limor, Sean and Raf. Couple of thoughts occur…
    Why is anybody surprised that oral storytellers are somewhat slow in getting into the digital realm? I should have thought it was almost built-in to the definition – storytelling is person-to-person in the most immediate way possible. Anyone who understands and values that will tend to be suspicious of anything that mediates/messes with that relationship. Quite apart from the point that we’re (largely) dealing with ancient source material, which might also tend to encourage one to customarily take the long view.
    I’m an early adopting self-confessed tech-head, I love digital things (as far as I know, Word in Edgeways, the company I work with, was one of the first in the UK to use digital projection as part of a traditional storytelling performance) but even so I have deep reservations…it’s just difficult to use new media in ways which complement the immediacy of the live storytelling experience. Even harder than it is to integrate it effectively into theatre, and that’s only really become an accepted part of the mainstream in the past couple of years.
    The one area that has really changed is how easy it is to generate ‘product’ – recordings, CDs, DVDs,books, ebooks etc. All this has become a whole lot easier thanks to the digital revolution, and good luck to those that have the desire and energy to exploit it, I reckon. As Sean says, it’s the relationship that comes first, then the product sale – I’ve talked to enough colleagues and manned enough stalls at festivals to realise the truth of that.
    Ironic, then, that the best CDs I’ve heard are those where the storyteller has really understood that it’s a very different medium, and put time and effort into mastering the form, rather than offering a pale re-creation of the live experience.
    This is where the nub of the thing lies, I think. We have become so used to the way mass media mediates experience that it’s easy to think that a recording can in some senses stand for the real thing. In some contexts it can even be more effective than the real thing (coverage of some sports, for example).
    Which is fine for some things, but not for storytelling. It just isn’t the same, it really isn’t and we need to understand and accept that. I’ll listen to a good audio recording of a live storytelling, because the lack of pictures leaves enough room for my imagination to get to work. I’d much rather listen to a studio-produced recording made by a storyteller that understands the medium and has adapted their telling to suit.
    I almost never watch videos of storytelling (almost all storytellers should be severely discouraged from going anywhere near Youtube, on pain of pain) because hardly anyone seems to get that it’s a completely different media, and that simply bunging a camera in front of what may very well be a great live show is the worst of all worlds. I feel very strongly that this is doing no-one any favours…

    On the subject of taking storytelling into the business/corporate arena it’s occurred to me that I don’t really want to be operating in a context that militates against people responding simply as human beings, rather than feeling they are constrained by role or status.
    Could say a lot more on this, but probably best to stop now :)

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