Story-Telling - often just a bit of a power trip for bosses

(Around 2014, Story-Telling seemed to become the Next Big Thing. The Answer to Everything. On Courses, people would say: "I want to learn how to 'Tell my Story'". So I did this brief email to pop a few myths. For more on the topic, my Clarity and Impact book has an eight-page Chapter which even has a ten-branch decision tree(!) that tells you when to - and when not to - Tell Stories.)   


Some people tell stories at work. I do. Simple ones. They're not much more than brief anecdotes ("WiT worked nicely at a client"). Salespeople tell stories too (“ABC bought our product and saved millions”).

This email isn't about those stories though. It's about Story-Telling - and according to experts, it's an art form that needs some or all of the following ingredients. A situation, complication, resolution. An 'inciting event', a dark reality. A hero that’s relatable and likeable. Roadblocks that the hero overcomes. A protagonist that digs deep and discovers truth. And a 'villain' too - someone for the audience to boo and hiss.

And if the hero is you, even better. You appear, so we’re told, authentic. You build trust and inspire. Audiences empathise, engage.

Nice. Such wonderful outcomes, and all for the price of Telling Stories of your trials and tribulations (hereon, capitals denote anything that aspires to use the above ingredients).

I’m not convinced. OK, the usual tired sophistry gets rolled out to justify Story-Telling (“We crave Stories, we’ve told them for 2,000 years, they're better than bullets, etc”).

But they’re all easy to address - let’s move on. Instead, here's some thoughts.

Raconteur or crushing bore? It's easy to cross the fine line between them. What you think are pithy morals of Stories, audiences think are jejune and a cure for insomnia.

Time well-spent or time we resent? When you talk about yourself, do you connect? Or indulge?

Narrating or exaggerating? When staff describe roadblocks to bosses, it’s expectation management – by stretching the truth, they hope bosses accept failure without penalty, or reward success with a bigger bonus (“Boss, I did the impossible for you!”). Life and Lie are similar words – is your life-story just an F in Lie?

But, I hear people counter, what about JFK, Churchill, etc? They inspired with Stories. Also, newspaper ads often Tell Stories about penniless Pat who read Six secrets to riches and now owns yachts in Monaco. Fair points... so here’s more thoughts:

Seniority matters. Bosses Tell Stories to underlings - and underlings fawningly tell bosses how inspiring it all was. Yet few underlings Tell Stories to bosses (if they did, most bosses would say: “Shut up and get to the point”). It’s akin to out-takes in movies: if lead actors muck up, it’s funny. If extras muck up, they’re fired.

Trust matters. People think Stories build trust. No. It’s the other way round – you need trust to build Stories. Trust informs whether to tell Stories. After all, if people don’t trust you, your Story makes matters worse – you waste people’s time telling them more lies.

Business or consumer purchase? Pat’s rags-to-riches Story works because it’s a consumer purchase, but when we pitch to managers who then must get directors to…

Wait. I’ll stop there. There's too much to Story-Telling to squeeze into this email. There are myths to pop. Criteria to define. Decision trees to construct. However, here's a final thought: when you talk or write, it’s not about Telling Stories. It’s about conveying messages and achieving outcomes. Telling Stories is just one way of many to do that. And it's a way that can backfire if you do it when you shouldn't.


P.S don't confuse Story-Telling with something people often do... they use, say, a graph to "tell a story". Not the same thing. Story-Telling has heroes, roadblocks, inciting events, dark realities, etc. The graph doesn't. Page 263 of my book explains more.


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