Businesses, You’re Not Seinfeld! Why I Hate “Storytelling”

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Don’t get me wrong—sharing sto­ries is impor­tant for busi­ness­es. I’ve writ­ten a lot about it. But hon­est­ly, I hate the word sto­ry­telling.

Most peo­ple who give busi­ness­es advice on sto­ry­telling sub­tly imply that sto­ries for busi­ness­es and mar­ket­ing are like sto­ries for enter­tain­ment. They imply that the sto­ry needs to be TOLD, in the same way Sein­field needs to tell us jokes. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Sein­feld. To ful­ly know that you’re not Sein­feld, you must first under­stand how Sein­feld comes up with his mate­r­i­al...)

How to be like Seinfeld

In this great video, Jer­ry Sein­feld explains how to write a joke and says this is how he wrote every episode of his sit­com. (I’m intrigued by the sim­plic­i­ty of the means he uses to cap­ture his mate­r­i­al: yel­low pads and the blue Bic pens.)

His job is, literally, to waste our time

It’s impor­tant to remem­ber his BLUNT goal is to waste our time. (His words, not mine!) That’s not a bad thing—but it IS true. His sto­ries and many sto­ry­tellers’ jobs is to waste our time . . . to enter­tain us . . . to let us escape real­i­ty for a few moments.

Busi­ness­es, on the oth­er hand are usu­al­ly look­ing to find more cus­tomers, cre­ate more con­nec­tions, sell more prod­ucts, and so on. Sto­ries are a pow­er­ful tool to make this hap­pen! How­ev­er, much of the busi­ness sto­ry­telling experts I’ve found tends to treat busi­ness­es like Jer­ry Sein­feld, as if they were cre­at­ing con­tent to waste time, rather than to inform. (And yes, sto­ries can do more for us than sim­ply enter­tain.)

I don’t like the word “storytelling”

Here are my 4 rea­sons why I don’t like to use the word sto­ry­teller or sto­ry­telling:

1. Implies lying

As a child, I learned that tellings the truth was good. Because of that, I learned that mak­ing up sto­ries and lying was BAD. Because of that, I always aim to tell the truth, not “sto­ries.”

The phrase telling sto­ries comes with an unavoid­able impli­ca­tion that facts and details may be altered. The events may not have hap­pened as they’re told. There’s a pos­si­bly that the teller may embell­ish or exag­ger­ate . . . lie? (Or all three?)

Seth Godin, how­ev­er, believes LYING isn’t so bad. We all believe lies. We tell our­selves sto­ries (aka lies) and we believe them even when they’re untrue. We believe pan­cakes at IHOP taste bet­ter than when made at home. We believe Puma sneak­ers make us faster. It’s a lie, it’s a sto­ry.

Either way, lying has a neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion and TELLING a LIE/STORY is per­ceived as bad. We avoid liars. We want to hear from peo­ple who are fact-checked and hon­est. We want to trust peo­ple and not be sold a bag-of-goods.

For me, a sto­ry­teller or some­one “into sto­ry­telling” may have the ten­den­cy to bend the truth and get too cre­ative. When it comes to con­vey­ing a business’s sto­ry, I believe it’s bet­ter to be a sto­ryshar­er or to sto­ryshare. If I’m sim­ply shar­ing a true sto­ry, rather than “telling you a sto­ry,” the empha­sis lies in the weight of the sto­ry, not the teller.

2. Implication of info being fiction/make-believe

When something’s a STORY, there’s a pos­si­ble impli­ca­tion that it’s “kid’s stuff” or “make-believe.”

Mis­ter Rodgers Neigh­bor­hood encour­aged chil­dren to trav­el to the Neigh­bor­hood of Make-Believe and spend a few min­utes with Daniel Tiger and Prince Tues­day. While it may seem sil­ly to con­tem­plate this as an adult, think about how often you still trav­el to a land of make-believe: ever binge watch a show or read some­thing that takes you into anoth­er world?

When it comes to busi­ness sto­ries, the more true and REAL they are, the bet­ter. If some­thing is fake and inau­then­tic, peo­ple will fig­ure it out real quick. If you’re telling a true sto­ry, stick to the facts, and remem­ber you don’t need to be cre­ative and make some­thing that’s make-believe. Your goal is NOT to enter­tain peo­ple—you’re not Sein­feld!

[share­able cite=“Josh Mitchell”]Just remem­ber: you’re not Seinfeld![/shareable]

3. English class taught me “show, don’t tell”

As an Eng­lish major, I heard the phrase show, don’t tell many times. We were encour­aged to SHOW how a char­ac­ter made a shift in their behav­ior instead of say­ing, “The char­ac­ter made a shift in their behav­ior.” Just like in Math class, we got points for show­ing our work, to SHOW how, where, and why we saw some­thing in the text.

For this rea­son, I’m resis­tant to the phrase tell your sto­ry. It’s back­wards. To tell a good sto­ry, you must SHOW, not tell. Sto­ryshow­ing sounds weird and isn’t tech­ni­cal­ly a word yet, but, it IS a bet­ter word to describe what should hap­pen.

If you just TELL a sto­ry, you’re not show­ing your read­er, lis­ten­er, or view­er the evi­dence and “gaps” nec­es­sary for them to fill in the blanks. If you just share a stream of facts there is no ques­tion­ing, engage­ment, or antic­i­pa­tion. So, let’s replace sto­ry­TELLING with sto­rySHOW­ING and pur­pose­ful­ly craft an expe­ri­ence for the read­er, view­er, or lis­ten­er.

[share­able cite=“Josh Mitchell”]To tell a good sto­ry, you must SHOW, not tell.[/shareable]

4. ‘Telling’ privileges the sender or transmitter of info

When peo­ple think of sto­ry­telling, they’re often mes­mer­ized by the TELLING part. Either some­one is good, or their not.

When we focus our atten­tion too much on the TELLING part of sto­ries, we give too much cred­it to the sender or the speak­er of the sto­ry. I don’t know about you, but when I’m lis­ten­ing to sto­ries, I’m think­ing, pro­cess­ing, ques­tion­ing, and engag­ing with the oth­er per­son sharing—even if they’re not in the same room with me! It’s not about the sender, it’s about my ques­tions and my sto­ry.

Test your­self: have you ever laughed at a movie, email, text mes­sage, gif, or book? If yes, you’ve processed and engaged with a sto­ry with­out the “sto­ry-teller” being the room. This is why I’m not sat­is­fied with the word “sto­ry­telling” or “telling sto­ries.” It priv­i­leges the sender (the teller) too much and doesn’t val­ue or acknowl­edge the active lis­ten­er or read­er involved.

So what’s the solution?

My solution—for now—is that we han­dle the phrase “sto­ry­TELLER” care­ful­ly. If you’re in fact shar­ing an illus­tra­tion to make a point, sure, you’re a sto­ry­teller. But if you’re shar­ing true events and facts, the phrase shar­ing a sto­ry is a more accu­rate descrip­tion of what’s hap­pen­ing.

  1. Be a sto­ryshar­er. Instead of TELLING a sto­ry and it being about you, the teller, prac­tice sto­ry SHARING. Let the sto­ry be the focal point, not you.
  2. Prac­tice sto­ryshow­ing. Show your read­er, lis­ten­er, or view­er, evi­dence and clues. Let them for­mu­late ques­tions on their own that make them want to know the answer. Show, don’t tell.
  3. Stay focused on the PERSON get­ting the sto­ry. Think of one, high­ly spe­cif­ic per­son who will get your sto­ry. Imag­ine them tak­ing in the sto­ry by them­selves.
  4. Ship your sto­ry. A sto­ry not shared doesn’t exist.

[reminder]Am I crazy?[/reminder]

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