Storytelling – A Beginner’s Guide #1: Why I Hated *That Word*

Storytelling? Pffft.

If the Me of 20 years ago met the Me of today, the conversation might go like this:

Now Me: Yo.

Then Me: Holy crap. What happened to my hair?

NM: Yeah, we should probably talk about that . . .

TM: Is that a laptop? Aren’t they, like, £10,000 each? Can it run Doom?

NM: Again with the we-need-to-talk thing.

TM: What’s “Gmail”?

NM: Look, just shut up for a minute. There’s something I need to say.

TM: Wow, is that thing a phone?

NM: LISTEN. Your writing – you know, all those stories in notebooks? Don’t throw them away. They’ll come in useful. Also? Keep reading obsessively. And playing computer games too, and watching TV. I know they’re getting in the way of dating…

TM: Oh god.

NM: OK. But the main thing is, Keep Doing That Stuff. Right?

TM: I suppose. Do I have to keep working at the pottery, making handles for mugs?

NM: For a while longer, yes.

TM: Right. Oh . . . oh hell, do you . . . ARE YOU STILL WORKING AT THE POTTERY?

NM: Hah – no, Mike.

TM: Well, that’s something at least. So – what are you doing?

NM: I’m a writer.

TM: YES!!! Haha! Awesome. So, I make it after all? I end up in my dream job?

NM: Well, kinda. It’s a mixture of things. I write for magazines, I write about travel, I have a blog . . .

TM: What’s a blog?

NM: . . . and I’m a storytelling consultant.

TM: . . .

NM: What’s that face for?

TM: “Storytelling consultant.”

NM: Yes. What’s wrong?

TM: I’m upset about the fact that in 20 years I’ll turn out to be a pretentious dick.

Let’s Talk About The ‘S’ Word

Here are the reasons I used to hate the word “storytelling”.

It was because I knew, with unshakable certainty, that “storytelling” was…

1) Just Another Word For “Writing”. Storytelling meant writing. Therefore, “tell good stories” was another way of saying “write well.” And that made “I’m a storyteller” into “I’m trying to make myself sound cool, but it’s fooling nobody and I just sound like a tool.” It was a pointless, irritating synonym for an existing word that did the job perfectly, without fuss. “Storytelling” was a marketing buzzword, used by idiots. Dear storytellers: say you’re writers and stop wasting our time, you dorks.

2) Just Another Word For “Talented”. Being a good writer was a matter of being born with something special trait, a flicker of genius that normal people (ie. Muggles) lacked. Except somehow “writer” sounded a much more respectful & professional title, same as “plumber” or “astronaut”. “Storyteller” sounded amateurish — but also, in alluding to a talent and not a skill, it sounded like bragging. I was born awesome and you weren’t! Well, thanks for that, you pompous jackass.

3) Childish And Unimportant. I thought that stories were things read to kids to get them to go to sleep. Even though I was a fully hooked story addict, with hundreds of paperback novels in my bookcase, I thought that stories were for children — same as computer gaming, which I was similarly addicted to. At some point I knew I should grow up, and when I did, when I got a real job, I probably wouldn’t have the time for stories and games. Because I’d be a grown-up, getting a life.

In summary: describing yourself as a storyteller was a sign you were so far up yourself you’d never see daylight again.

100_1291

A few years ago, I got really annoyed with storytellers. They seemed to be junking up my Twitter feed almost as much as those “social media gurus” with no followers and a stream of updates so lacking in warmth they made Terminators look like care workers. I wanted to rant about them, but lacked the data for a good argument — so I went digging.

Less than a year later, I was talking about storytelling at a travel blogging conference, after which I wrote this. And then I was talking about it at another conference, and another and yet another. Storytelling is now my thing. I am now that which I railed against – and the reason for this is simple.

Like many people, I totally misunderstood what storytelling is.

Storytelling is not just “good writing”. It is possible for someone to string a rattling yarn and yet have no discernible flair for writing. I have strong views on this subject, but since it would be unprofessional of me to comment on the occasionally adequate storyteller and utterly atrocious writer Dan Brown here, I won’t. Let’s move briskly to the next bullet-point. Well, after reading this, which I promise only mentions Mr Brown a couple of times.

Storytelling isn’t just for kids. Once I’d adjusted my way of thinking about storytelling, once I could truly see it for what it was . . . I saw it everywhere. I saw it being used in military simulators, in professional negotiations, in hostage situations, in therapy, in courts of law, in sports, in finance, in every computer application and mobile phone app, every marketing campaign and sales page, and in every single open loop of worry I ever fretted over. If storytelling is just for kids, the modern world is run by kids.

Storytelling isn’t something you’re born with . . . If you have a background or upbringing rich in narrative, you’ll have learned the skill of storytelling by osmosis, and if that is connected to lots of creative energy, it looks like you’re a born storyteller. (Or liar. Sometimes there’s overlap.) But becoming a master storyteller is about that 99% perspiration, not that 1% inspiration. It’s a skill. You learn it.

. . . and yet, it kinda is. We are all born into a world powered by stories, but we take to stories so quickly that it appears there’s something there already. Children are master storytellers of the most ghoulish kind. Their stories are about fear, pain, violence, playfully blowing each other up with bombs, getting lost in supermarkets and never finding the exit, having child-eating monsters get the drop on them. Children come up with these vignettes of pure horror all on their own. Why? Nobody knows for sure – but one theory is that stories are survival simulators. More on that another time.

But the most profoundly useful thing that storytelling is? It’s a way to get your ideas into the heads of complete strangers.

I came up with an analogy for this. It’s the most-quoted, most-tweeted thing that has come out of the talks I’ve given – and even though it’s merely an approximation, it’s a nice short-cut into a complicated concept.

It’s this:

SEOBrains

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is a process of improving the ability of a website to convey useful, searchable information to search engines in a way that gets noticed.

Storytelling is a process of improving the ability of people to convey useful information to other people in a way that sticks.

If you nail yourself to that definition, storytelling loses its air of unfathomable artistry, its elitist use by the Anointed Creative Few, and becomes something universally practical, like duct-tape, or a screwdriver. Not something that just happens somehow thanks to some unseen creative, arty-farty wotsit-thingummy, but something you can apply knowingly, something that lends itself to trial and error. Something anyone can do, if they know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

You can take a piece of writing of any kind, apply a little storytelling, and improve its ability to be read and to be remembered. This applies to fiction and non-fiction alike. This is why novelists, marketeers and journalists are increasingly using the same set of tools…

Because good stories are unforgettable.


NEXT: #2 – Five Ways To Hack A Story

Images: Venture Vancouver & Mike Sowden. Thanks to Shannon for the link to “Writers vs Storytellers: An Epic Battle? Nah.

  • Fantastic post, my friend! I especially enjoyed this part, “Dear storytellers: say you’re writers and stop wasting our time, you dorks,” as it reminded me of something Susan Orlean said last year at Book Passage. She basically said there’s a difference between writing and reporting; that you may be a great writer, but that doesn’t automatically make you a great reporter. I took reporting to mean essentially what you’re talking about here – finding and telling a story – and that there’s an aspect to it that’s somewhat set apart from simply having good writing chops. Thanks for getting me thinking on a Wednesday morning, and I look forward to part two!

  • If Dan Brown is “atrocious”, E. L. James is…..

    I love how reframing a word/concept can simplify and clarify all at once. Thank you!

  • sharon miro

    As always, looking forward to part 2.

  • I called myself a “storyteller” in my ‘About Me’ page and felt like a dick doing it. Especially since I’d just attended your kickass talk about storytelling at TBEX. But I lack a better word. Writer doesn’t seem to fit the bill, and neither does author…too high-brow. I was thinking of replacing “storyteller” with “waffler” or “rambler.” “Driveler” maybe? What do you think?

  • I absolutely loved your talk at TBEX this year, and yes, I definitely remembered “Storytelling is SEO for human brains”. It is such an incredible skill to be a good storyteller, and I am so thankful to hear you say that it is indeed a learned skill – I hope to improve every day. I’ll definitely continue to use your site as a guide and as inspiration.

    Will you be at TBEX in Dublin? It would be awesome to hear you talk again/meet you. Until then, I’ll wait for part 2.

    -Brenna

  • I was one of the people huffing and puffing behind the wall of bodies at the door to your talk at TBEX, unable to get in. So thank you for recapping points made there, here! I love this explanation of story telling and agree that it isn’t as abstract a trait as some people fear. I think every writer has the occasional nagging fear that writing and storytelling doesn’t come as naturally to them as they’d like to convey — but thankfully, we can all keep improving! Keep the advice coming so we can all do just that. :)

  • I actually got a seat at this TBEX talk, which was great. Storytelling is timeless and will outlive the term “SEO” (until SEO comes to mean something else depending on where technology leads us). When I think of storytelling I think of an experience as intrinsic as campfires under the stars, because what you get around the campfire is not too different from what you get in a book (print or Kindle) or what you find on Twitter or Facebook or what you get around the watercooler at work or at a bar with friends. Being a “storyteller” may sound goofy, but it’s got some degree of job security since stories will always be told about people, places, cultures, good vs. evil, and all that. The medium may change, but people’s thirst for stories won’t.

  • We were not there at TBEX, so this was absolutely new for us. I really enjoyed reading this post. Storytelling is SEO for human brains- Touché!!

    • Sorry to have missed you (and to be *gulp* 2 years late in replying). If you want to know the basics of what I said, drop me an e-mail – I’d be happy to pass it along – although this 10-part course, with this post as part 1, pretty much covers it.

  • First of all… Dan Brown… Yes. Thank you! And I agree with you on the rest as well.

    This post came rushing out of the ether at me as I’m doing research on travel blogs, and it really touched a nerve. Actually, I think it grabbed my by the reptilian brain and squeezed. I’ve often considered myself a “storyteller.” My friends maybe less so… I ramble. I more than consider myself a writer: it’s what I do for a living. On top of teaching a little English and make a general nuisance of myself in all circle with the least bit of interest in English grammar and usage. There’s a surprising number of us here in Taiwan.

    But I will eagerly read more about storytelling in a totally non-dorky way (I hope). This is going in my feed and I’m looking forward to more of your writing, Mike. Don’t let me down.

  • LOL – I love the statement that storytelling is SEO for human brains.
    I keep saying that I write for the people visiting our site, not for my Yoast SEO plugin (which hardly ever rewards my effort with a “green dot of approval”), nor for Google. Keywords high up in the first paragraph? I don’t divert from my idea of a good intro to bend my text to SEO.

    • Yep, top-ranking SEO folk would say “write for humans” as well. SEO is really powerful for getting words in front of human eyeballs. But these days, Google rewards you for saying things that people care about. More and more, it reflects patterns of human attention, and from what little I know on the topic, every update moves further in that direction.

      All that said, I obey Yoast unquestioningly. ;) That plugin has been a big help for me.

  • Lovely, lovely post shading some real light on storytelling and why it matters. +1 for the part 2 :)

    • Thanks, Damjan! I’ve now added that part 2 – and part 3 to 10. The link is at the bottom of the article. Cheers!

  • ralphcarlson

    I was there before reading. You just clarified what was fuzzy. Not that I didn’t need to read this but I’d been prepped by Stephen King. Still those are words and artifiace with you as the butt of the storyline. I get the words but not really the feeling. How do I break through the pretention that I have something people need to hear?