What exactly is ‘storytelling’? That is a more difficult question than it might at first appear.
In the most traditional sense, it describes the age-old act of telling tales, an oral tradition relayed in person, often involving a campfire. More recently, it’s become a general way of discussing how authors create narrative forms of art across many mediums, from films to television, books to games, and the original, spoken form.
But in the last few years, a further use has emerged. From merely being a descriptive category or an element of artistic production, storytelling has now become something we should all be doing, a method that everyone should master in the age of social media.
In particular, any organisation that sees itself as having a social or ethical cause is told that the key to their success is effective storytelling, though often with little definition of what exactly that means in practice.
It’s not hard to see why this has happened. The idea that you can just apply a simple method, and your business, your project, or your cause, could borrow some of the glamour and attractiveness of a Hollywood blockbuster, is a pretty compelling one.
And of course, there are many straightforward lessons here that still need learning.
Most obviously, if you are trying to connect with an audience, describing it through the lens of people’s experiences (or your own) can be far more emotive and powerful than raw information or statistics. That you need to gradually draw people in, make them intrigued and curious, rather than just immediately unloading your central message.
However, attempts to advocate for ‘storytelling’ as a method, tend to consist mainly of paeans to the wonderful things that stories can self-evidently ‘do’ – inspire us, bring us together, help us see the future, and move us to action.
More often than not, these are accompanied with dubious neuroscientific claims to the effect that we are ‘hardwired’ to find stories compelling, but rarely any real practical suggestions, or reasons why some stories might be more successful than others.
Where more depth is present, it often relies heavily on The Hero’s Journey, a ‘monomyth’ developed by the late American mythologist Joseph Campbell. As a researcher, Campbell studied great myths and legends from across the world, and attempted to synthesise them all into one myth to rule them all; a core archetypal structure behind all compelling human narratives. This was outlined most famously in his 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
The influence of Campbell’s work is undoubted – particularly on the film industry – where it is credited as an inspiration for Star Wars, The Matrix, and many other blockbusters. Certainly no-one who has absorbed the current wave of superhero movies would doubt the existence of a governing theory that produces a consistent narrative structure across all of them.
However, the relevance of all this to the practical day-to-day job of communicating about projects, businesses, and causes is rarely unpacked. Instead the theory merely lurks in the background, serving as a sufficiently complex verification that the experts do in fact have some justification for the conclusions they are drawing, even if they rarely explain the exact connection.
No doubt, The Hero’s Journey is an interesting concept, and much can be learnt from it. But as a guide to effective, everyday communications, its complexity and specific form make its usefulness questionable.
Campbell himself admitted he left out examples and aspects of world myth that didn’t fit his project for a common narrative, and in a contemporary light many of its assumptions seem distinctly questionable.
Indeed, the whole idea that it is possible to amalgamate thousands of years of culture from all over the global into a single, homogenised format without imposing your own cultural bias and perspective is something that would likely be treated with derision were it attempted today.
And when you start to look more closely, it's not hard to see that the perspectives of a 1940s American academic are present in the ‘monomyth’, based as it is around an individual journey of redemption and transformation, as a lone hero progresses through trials, doubts, and (feminine) temptations.
Even if we consider Campbell’s synthesis as accurate, is this story of lone heroics really the one we want to use as a template for all our own narrative creations, imbued as it is with the values of ancient societies with very different priorities than our own?
In the age of celebrity and global superstars, heroic individualism may sell well. But as we grapple, for example, with the consequences of a reckless technology industry, whose negligent attitude to our institutions and culture is the product of founders who certainly see themselves as heroes in their own story, it’s right to ask if these are the narratives we really want to propagate. Do we really need more people who think they are heroes on a personal mission to save us?