Storytelling is (not) Dead

A few months ago, a friend and designer sent me a link to Storytelling is Dead, a short piece that attempts to dethrone the current reign of storytelling. The author, a designer, argues that with our decreasing attention spans, which last a mere 8.25 seconds, nobody is paying attention to your campaign amidst the din of media and messages. So drop the words and make it pretty. This is a somewhat myopic and industry-specific view from a biased source. While she offers sage advice in “cutting the crap,” she also misses the mark: storytelling is as old as the human race. From oral traditions and religious texts to campfire stories, narrative is ingrained in our DNA and connects us in a deeply human way.

Of course, I am biased. I'm a trained journalist, a storyteller by trade. I’ve spent that last 16 years engaging clients with questions like, “Yes, but what’s your story?”  In Elizabeth Svoboda’s The Power of Story, she briefly examines the influence of narrative through time and culture, from the New Testament to modern day. She writes, “New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act.”

In Winning the Story Wars by the Story of Stuff creator Jonah Sachs, he theorizes that the oral tradition of storytelling—those that were originally orated by community leaders, shamans, and elders—are now in the hands of marketers and the media. It’s a powerful role to play in crafting the current story of our time, something philosophers and ethicists like Noam Chomsky and Robert McChesney have been saying for years.

But Sachs believes that the digital era, with its complete message fatigue and social media saturation, is actually making audiences active participants in the story rather than passive consumers of marketing messages or pretty design. In her article, Svoboda says “Every story is the beginning of a conversation with ourselves as well as each other.” As a result, today, our chosen narratives need to be even more meaningful and impactful. Every message thoughtfully considered. Every word carefully and intentionally chosen. To rise above the din, we don’t shout louder or say nothing at all (as the designer suggested above), we tell a story that is authentic, strategic, and engaging. We invite our audience in. Because without story, it’s just a product to be consumed not valued, a headline to be read and forgotten, another email to be deleted.