Storytelling Morals and Ethics for the Digital Age
Obviously, the combined power of story and technology begs for a new code of ethics. The good news is that enduring myths “crowd sourced” moral lessons long before we coined the term, by incorporating centuries of listeners’ tales about what works, what doesn’t work, and how to (or how not to) resolve conflicting needs. This original form of crowd-sourcing wisdom is distorted when our conversations become subject to the goals of technology and the assumption that emotions are irrational, inaccurate, or needlessly biased. Oral tradition retained vital morals designed to frame behaviors that might be unreasonable in the short term—generosity, for instance—as such an emotionally rewarding act of personal sacrifice that it was worth it. Many myths and folk stories preserve valuable wisdom that frames a wide variety of solutions to the recurring dilemmas of real people with competing needs living in an imperfect world. Right now, many corporations focused entirely on speed would benefit from the insights provided in the story of the tortoise and the hare. This wisdom of slow thinking need not be forfeited simply because we can’t accurately predict the monetary value of deep insight.
Recent attempts to monetize advice for storytellers with books and webinars that offer formulas and promise fast track tools tend to emphasize stories that achieve goals of commerce at the risk of social good. In the same way that mastering the skill to generate social media “likes” can actively degrade the skills that generate real life “likes” as when a good friend brings you soup when you are sick. Is it social media’s job to train us to be good friends? The answer depends on your circle of moral concern and willingness to balance tangible goals with intangible goals. There is no reason why we can’t blend scientific approaches to storytelling with moral and spiritual approaches as well. And there is every chance that your stories will feel far more meaningful and more engaging when you do.
For millennia, stories passed down wisdom with moral guidance to help listeners find the right path in the face of ambiguity, paradox and competing desires. The King Midas story juxtaposes commercial desires against social desires. Narcissus was so entranced with his reflection in the water he died of thirst. There are too may myths that warn of the danger of excessive self-interest to disregard this advice. Morals expressed in story form teach us how to negotiate paradoxical dilemmas all humans must negotiate growth/sustainability, freedom/safety, inclusion/exclusion, justice/apathy, control/collaboration, and greed/generosity. They are not formulaic, or necessarily convenient, or even rational, but these ambiguous stories encourage the kind of perceptual agility we need to design solutions for current global dilemmas. The good news for marketers is that stories that reflect the complexity of balancing self interest and moral reasoning are more likely to produce content that feels meaningful as well as deliver bottom line results.
Excerpt from Chapter 11, 3rd ed. of The Story Factor (2019) AUDIBLE VERSION HERE