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

April 18, 2017

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!

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 backward. 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.

To tell a good story, you must SHOW, not tell.

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.
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