Storytelling is the panacea in all sorts of communicative endeavors today. At least it seems to be widely regarded as such. Be it in journalism or marketing, in change management or business analysis, where there is information to be passed on, chances are there is a blog post about how storytelling is supposed to help. Sadly, very rarely do we find mention of how to properly use stories to our advantage.

It is true that storytelling is an immensely powerful medium. But to meaningfully apply storytelling as a tool we must look for a much greater level of abstraction than trying to force our TPS-reports into a Star Wars narrative. The magic of stories lies not in rehashing tired tropes. When it comes to communicating effectively, the true test of storytelling is its structure. There is even a cognitive science explanation as to why a narrative structure makes it easier to process information, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In its essence, a story is nothing but a sequence of events linked by a causal chain. The setting of those events or even the pattern by which prototypical agents conform to familiar tropes, are secondary. Oftentimes information is presented in a way that frames it in convention to certain story tropes. But merely ticking the boxes of a “Hero’s Journey” or “Stranger in a Strange Land” does not make a story!

Let me make this perfectly clear: If the link of cause and effect is broken, there is no story.

Jumping to conclusions and sprinkling Yoda quotes on it? You are doing it wrong!

What we have in these cases instead is a variation of the Underwear Gnome Theory of Marketing. Unfortunately, it seems that the underwear gnomes were an extremely successful enterprise, because they managed to franchise not one, but two subsets of their grand scheme. For one, I do find that the gnomes have been irritatingly good at hiding my socks. At least I suspect it must be them, because I do miss half of a pair of socks with alarming regularity.

Secondly, and this is where the Underwear Gnome Theory of Marketing becomes relevant for this post, their infamous master plan has been adopted by marketers all around. Which may be even more annoying than missing socks. If you are not familiar with their business plan, it goes as follows:

  1. Gather knickers
  2. Mysterious mumble, secret gnome ideas, mumble, mumble…
  3. Profit.


And it represents all that is wrong with “storytelling” as a marketing tool.

More than once have I had to witness storytelling being reduced to yet another entry in marketing-bullshit bingo. If your “story” sounds even remotely like theirs, it is time to face reality. You are not telling a story.

Ours is by far the best solution to dragon slaying you can find. Like this one time, where a customer, let’s call him Siegurd, came to us to help with his problem. We looked at his sword and decided to action forward in business develop leveraging the synergy potential of seeding the marketplace and closing open territory coverage to optimally deliver real value. So Sigurd drove lots of new revenue and lived happily ever after.

The adhesive of cause and effect and the magic word in storytelling: Why!

I get that storytelling is hard. In your head, all the pieces that tie the actions of your protagonists and antagonists together make sense. So why do our audiences not just follow our train of thought?

The challenge is knowing which pieces of the puzzle in your head you must prominently feature for your audience to get the same sense of understanding. Don’t hand wave explanations or assume that common knowledge can fill in gaps in your story. You will wreck it. Instead, follow the trail of actions that give meaning to the web you are spinning: The audience must always be able to answer the question of “why.”

As I said before: A narrative is nothing but an unbroken sequence of events upon which an audience can bestow sense. If they are always able to answer the “why” themselves, because the previous events inform them to interpret the later ones, that is when we have successfully told a story. When we fail to provide our audience with the information they need to answer the question, our story fails.

Water cooler tales: Besting the Grendel of all copying machines.

Now for the cognitive science explanation I have promised you: Ascribing meaning to events is how we perceive the world. Only that we create our own narratives out of the information we gather from it, instead of  being fed information by a narrator.

Our past experiences shape our expectations of causality. Since the laws of physics tend to work the same everywhere humans live, there is a certain dependability on shared experience, so that we may share our stories, too. Social experience is not quite as reliable, which makes intercultural communication so difficult.

But we all tell stories, quite naturally. Not just to ourselves, but to our peers. The reason water cooler talk is widely cherished is that it gives us opportunity to spread useful information, much like the way we gathered around the fire to tell stories in ancient times.

For a brief moment we become the hero who bested the dreaded code 759 of the copying machine, even though tech support was already gone late in the afternoon. With just a rubber band and a paper clip we finally fool the machine to ignore the problem in tray 3 and tend to our copying from tray 2 instead. And thanks to that valiant effort and the songs that will be sung of a brave warrior in the face of looming deadlines, not only did the beast fall to our cunning scheme. Now every fellow cubicle drone will never have to fear code 759 again.

So when we tell our own stories, we are quite capable of weaving a riveting yarn. I’m sure you can craft stories that convey similarly critical information to your audience. Just make sure you always look at the story from their view. Can they understand the sequence? Do they know the relevant context to understand why one event gives meaning to the other? Alright then. On to new adventures.

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