What is Storytelling?

Someone recently asked me what storytelling is and, more specifically, what it is not. The following observations from British poet and author, H.C. Morgan, seemed apropos. In today’s experiential and relational society, the narrative of a brand, and how that narrative intertwines with that of its workforce, market, community, and society…these are crucial considerations as the initial transaction alone no longer proves sufficient.

“Storytelling builds bridges between ignorance and understanding. 
These narrative conduits inspire and empower readers, listeners, and viewers to undertake a journey toward greater awareness, enlightenment, or simply knowledge. 
While a story may not be necessary for the acquisition of the aforementioned knowledge, it is (if properly structured) the most effective platform, channel, and vehicle for the journey in question: best structured to give the individual or collective the highest potential for sustainable realization of goals.

Storytelling is not a directionless engagement. 
Its goal should not be the use of language for effect, without purpose or objective. It ultimately should be about clarification, not obfuscation. 
A well-told story becomes, in its telling, the first chapter of a new story, taken up by the listener once they are inspired and empowered to make something of it that grows beyond the confines of the original narrator’s ken.”
-H.C. Morgan


Storytelling is at the core of communication, and we get it right when the listener/reader/viewer leaves with more than they came with. In some instances, the story will impart information and enlightenment; in other cases, humor or inspiration.

What is important, always, is to ensure that the platform, channel, or mode of storytelling not become more impactful than the story itself. This was the problem that Technology companies struggled with throughout the latter part of the 20th Century and even up to the present day: Technology is SUPPOSED to be in service to the content or solution offering, but too many companies became enamored with their proprietary or adopted technology of choice, and subsumed the initial value of their offering to the lure of the latest tech wizardry.

As our mobile phones show us, the latest technology will very swiftly become a cumbersome paperweight, to those who insist on being “early adopters”. Companies such as Disney (“Little Einstein” DVDs), Leapfrog (a whole mess of “tools” that now litter playroom floors across the nation), and Fisher-Price have learned the hard way that a technology should only be employed if it truly serves the communicated purpose.  Of course Disney wanted to sell DVDs, but it promoted its “Little Einstein” series as an intellectual and emotional enrichment program, and it was recently deeply embarrassed by the none-too-surprising revelation that its DVDs held little to zero value, in those particular areas. As a result, it has been forced to offer refunds to all consumers who purchased that series of DVDs. Examples such as this abound, all to say that when we develop a new way to tell stories, we should ponder whether the perceived advantages complement, replace, improve upon, or simply accessorize the core value of the traditional storytelling media: the voice or the written word.

When Guttenberg invented his press, and Christopher Latham Sholes subsequently invented the typewriter, these gentlemen unquestionably advanced the cause of storytelling (especially if you take MY handwriting as a case study in the challenges inherent prior to the printed word!). Edison and others who followed in his wake, brought storytelling to a new level, when they developed the mass appeal of Film, as a medium for enhancing the story.

The book, the radio, the film screen, and – arguably – the TV screen; all have served their purpose in increasing and enhancing the power of the story. They have also been often abused, platforms for the dissemination of content that represented everything from propaganda to junk to violence and more. The desire to sell consumer goods to the widest cross-section of society has led to the imperative to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This “dumbing down” of content has done little to advance the cause of storytelling, and technologies developed recently have sometimes contributed to this decline in intellectual and creative standards.

So, how do we assess the value of emerging channels and platforms that purport to represent the newest standards and advances in storytelling? Will these new tools and gewgaws deliver on their promise, or continue to contribute to the atrophy of our imaginations?

The latest gadget being touted comes from Japan, and is certainly compelling. I wonder, however, if this is a new take on an old system, or truly a new platform and concept in effective storytelling?

What do you think?