The Social Impact of Storytelling
Over the twenty years since The Story Factor was first published technology has accelerated communication, and with it the speed of storytelling, beyond our wildest imagination. Amid the revolutionary growth of all this digital media, video, database mining, and social media, Apple founder Steve Jobs commented that the “most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.” Jobs did not originate this thought. Hopi Indians have long said, “He who tells the stories rules the world.” But it was Jobs and his colleagues in the tech world who ushered in advances that magnify the power and magic of storytelling. Magic this powerful brings with it responsibility, so it’s essential to remember that to whom much is given, much is expected.
The biggest lesson over the last twenty years for storytellers is the realization that using technology to control a narrative in favor of a single point of view can silence other important points of view. The ancient story about five blind men describing five different parts of an elephant takes on new significance if you imagine that one of the blind men might now have a Twitter feed of 50 million followers. Through no fault of his own, his story describing only the elephant’s trunk—the only part of the elephant he could feel—could convince millions of his followers that elephants are like fat snakes that hang from the sky so they will be completely unprepared for the actual thing. The point is, single stories with short-term goals often leave out important details, and technology has increased our ability to spread those short- sighted tales.
In a TED talk, Nigerian novelist and short-story writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned of the danger of a single story, even those stories with positive intent. As a little girl in Africa, Adichie read children’s books about white children living in Europe that both engaged her and left her feeling excluded. A book designed to teach European kids to read unintentionally sent her the message that the world wasn’t interested in brown kids. It is difficult to predict this kind of harm, but now that we can see the potential we can develop practices that lessen the risk. Part of the answer is to avoid the harm of a single story by providing a variety of perspectives.
It is part of the creative process for artistic storytellers to apply a variety of methodologies and to be suspicious of “yes/no” answers to questions that are too complicated for the “yes/no” binary. Imagine asking Van Gogh if yellow is the most important color. Any “clear” answer distracts the aspiring painter from learning that yellow’s importance (like all colors) changes depending on its proximity and relationship to other colors. A tiny speck of yellow on an otherwise dark canvas can be more meaningful than a canvas completely covered with the same yellow. Whatever clear answers you have adopted to guide your storytelling, it’s important to remember that there are lots of good answers and more than one good definition. Single definitions limit your stories to the constraints of that source’s point of view. Recruiting definitions of story from psychology, business, behavioral science, marketing, public speaking, anthropology, the liberal arts, and mythology are bound to improve the artistry of a storyteller, as well as mitigate the risk of blind spots.
Excerpt from Chapter 11, 3rd ed. of The Story Factor (2019) AUDIBLE VERSION HERE