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.
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.
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.