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Op-Ed: What happened to good storytelling?

By Aron Solomon     Oct 16, 2014 in Technology
"The future is not a place that we're gonna go, it's a place that you get to create." These remarkably perceptive words from professional storyteller Nancy Duarte drew a line in the sand. A line we've crossed.
In what I've measured as less than 36 months, as a culture we've gone from not realizing that professional/business/startup/work storytelling existed, to being somewhat intrigued, to jumping multiple storytelling sharks. And in so doing, our ability to actually be storytellers has, to quote Mr. Lebowski the Elder (he of Nancy Reagan and Little Lebowski Urban Achievers fame — and proud we are of all of them) crashed into the mountain.
We're just not good at storytelling, and that's at least in part (hopefully only in part) because we don't understand it.
Former US Federal Prosecutor and Huffington Post blogger Jonathan Shapiro recently identified this shortcoming with (get ready) rabbis. Rabbis are, by nature and trade, supposed to be world-class storytellers, and I've personally known several that are (in the actually-show-up-for-shul-pre-TV-rabbi-sense). But Mr. Shapiro understands that the same shark (Query: are sharks kosher? Asking for a friend.) has jumped the ship of many rabbanim.
He observes that "the sermon is a chance to tie it all together, to make sense of it. Much of the Talmud is the analysis of past sermons and stories to be used in future sermons. So you would think giving a good sermon or telling a good story would be a basic requirement for becoming a rabbi. Apparently, it isn't."
Indeed, according to Mr. Shapiro, who self-identifies as a "frequent consumer of rabbinical sermons," the vast majority of the time, simply put, "the sermon bombs."
The reasons why rabbinical sermons bomb are many of the same reasons our own storytelling efforts bomb. For one, we make the story all about ourselves. Which is great if you're telling a story to yourself because, truly, the only person so deeply enamored with your stories is you.
Great storytelling is about making it easy for the listener to understand the story and why you're telling it. Mr. Shapiro notes that many rabbis make the congregation work way too hard through an almost Socratic degree of posed questions and demanded answers.
"Jewish tradition distinguishes between religious types of religious storytellers. There is the scholar (darshan) and the rabbi (maggid). The darshan prepares students. The rabbi speaks to a congregation of non-students who are seeking guidance, comfort and understanding. There are no dumb questions. But asking questions instead of preparing a sermon is just lazy."
We have become painfully lazy in our storytelling. As many rabbis do, we soak our storytelling in a stream of emotion, figuring that any story emotionally told must be better than a good story well-told. We're wrong.
Moving from rabbis to superheroes (hey — why not?), Charlie Jane Anders shares bad storytelling habits we all learned from comic books. Sure, I know that this relates to telling or writing actually stories (fiction, prose, etc.) many of the same observations are spot on when it comes to crafting our own stories as defined above.
Ms. Anders references the problems with heroic narratives, which we've all been taught to tell from the time we were very young. We didn't just catch a nice fish, we caught a whopper of a fish who gave a struggle so intense that we summoned mythological daemons to spear it with a damn trident.
Yes. A trident.
Just as there is redundancy in the telling of superhero tales, there is redundancy in our own storytelling. Rather than simply admit that each of us have one, maybe two stories that we tell and retell in, say, twenty-three very un-unique variations and re-re-tellings, we insist on creating the illusion of newness. Which results in a more abysmal telling of the stories we've already told, the trident being replaced by a bigger trident being replaced by a chicken and an arrow (nay, a mighty lance) and, well, you get my point.
I want to share with you a story well told. It was told in 2008 about a new technology that few thought would ever catch on because, in part, it was a deeply ridiculous notion.
A simple story. Told clearly. Insanely effective. Watched millions of times.
So back to Nancy Duarte for a moment, whom I professionally and personally like very much. She's a great storyteller, as you can see.
She believes that we can engage through storytelling, that we all have the power to create, craft (and, I would argue, curate) narratives that have meaning. She believes that through effective storytelling, we can make people feel, see, believe, and act. Rather than sensationalistic tales or a regurgitation of the same bitter narrative, she deeply understand the power of stories. If, as Ms. Duarte argues, great stories have the power to change the world as well as change your business, then the key (and one of the threads we've lost hut desperately need to regain) is authenticity.
“I will follow a leader that tells stories of failure than I will one who pretends they never have."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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