What Storytelling Is (Not)

Everybody is talking about "storytelling" lately...

When you hear the word "storytelling" so much, it seems like anything and everything can be storytelling. But it's important to define it so you know what I'm talking about. As written previously, I define storytelling as a dynamic exchange between the tale, the teller, and the audience. Understanding what is not storytelling--according to the definition I am developing based on the tradition of storytelling in librarianship--may help to further illuminate what storytelling is. But perhaps I should start with a quick definition of what storytelling is.

Stories are fascinating; lots of  people are deeply interested in story structure, but I focus most on storytelling. To understand the "telling" part, I see benefits to focusing on the dynamic of storytelling as a three-part interchange. We learn about listening from this model in ways that other models miss by focusing solely on the story. We also learn about generating collective meaning as well as divergent meanings, as when the teller or different audience members take a different meaning from the same story.






Trust is the central key to the dynamic interchange of storytelling. Not trust with one's life, perhaps, but trust in one's story and in the teller to take the audience on a journey and bring them safely home again. I usually think of three categories that help to further define what I mean by storytelling by way of contrast.

Storytelling is Not...

So what is not storytelling? To understand this, I suggest we examine three alternative pratices that often get lumped in with storytelling but which I see as distinct from storytelling.

1. Storytelling is not acting.
Though a great story is dramatic, storytelling is not acting because the teller is saying words that s/he wants to say, chose to say, intends to convey. The audience trusts that the storyteller is choosing to tell this story, not memorizing someone else's words. We may love actors, enjoy actors, swoon over actors, but we would be fools to trust them.

2. Storytelling is not comedy.
Storytelling may be uproariously funny, and some stories are deeply and inherently comedic, but humor and laughter can't be the storyteller's only goal. It might be better to say:  a storyteller is not a comedian. Laughter is amazing, it heals and unites people possibly like nothing else, but a storyteller's primary obligations are to the story and the audience rather than to comedy. Comedians may tell stories, but at the end of the day we know that they will break all the rules of trust if it gets a good laugh out of us. Or the rest of the audience, laughing at us.

3. Storytelling is not marketing.
I can see this being controversial, but the basic difference comes down, again, to trust. When someone you trust tells you a story that turns out to be all about selling something, you lose trust. If a storyteller is involved, then many attempts at marketing tend to distance that teller from the audience. The audience may love the products, may buy the products, may identify with the products, but that doesn't make for much of a story. It's just a purchasing transaction. Sometimes if the company hires a famous person as their storyteller, then there's a certain appeal, but at least some percentage of fans will question why this admired person is now selling them something when they did not do so before. There may be gaps here related to celebrity status that was always related to selling something, but in that case the story will tend to be minimal. The substance will most often be drama rather than a meaningful story.

I met a marketing professor recently and, when I told him I studied storytelling, he said "That's what I do! Marketing is storytelling!" I was taken aback, but I had time to think later about why I disagree on several counts. Marketing involves a kind of audience research that is qualitatively different that the audience familiarity and knowledge that storytellers cultivate. Storytellers want to share meaning with their audiences; marketers want to sell products. Again, some marketers want to sell meaningful products to their markets in meaningful ways, and that's great. But marketing doesn't qualify as storytelling because it flattens out that important third dimension of the triangle: the tale. The tale becomes a tool of transmission rather than an entity open to interpretation by both teller and audience.

Living stories...

A real storytelling interaction leaves the tale enlivened, changed, and perhaps enriched by every telling. You know you've heard a story when you were so engrossed you lost track of time and said "wow" the minute it was over. Even the teller has a feeling of connection and perhaps transformation based on the experience. Next post, I'll explore ideas about how various forms of communication (videos, blog posts, tweets) may or may not work to create a storytelling experience.