The old idea of stories that we learn as kids is like a golden age of reverie. We grew up to indulge the imagination with stories, fairy tales, a fantasy world where dogs and cats could talk and elephants could fly. It was a world made fit for children, but as we grew older, we were told to put away our childish things, to embrace the world of hard science full of facts and stats. It was time to leave stories behind. That was the day the music died.
Some of us refused to grow up if it meant leaving stories. We became adult artists, trying desperately to survive in our profit obsessed culture. We tried to bring stories back in through a corporate side door. We called it Storytelling for Business. And we made our case to NASA and the World Bank and IBM. Stories were good for leaders getting a message across. Stories were good for storing knowledge. Stories were good attention grabbers to sell your brand. Stories were for that inner child full of wants that we never outgrow anyway and they can increase the bottom line. Stories can make you money, we pleaded, so please pay us so we can pay our bills and be able to keep on telling stories.
Twenty years ago that was a hard argument to make. But if success can be measured by the number of books that come out each year on storytelling for business, you would have to say that the battle is over, and stories won. Everyone wants to be a storyteller. There is even an Organizational Storytelling for Dummies. We, this beleagued minority, has gone mainstream. We can bask in the glory of our success. But something doesn’t quite feel right. Did we win the battle and lose the war?
Now that all the big companies want to use story, and the market place is now seen as a battle of stories, has this- to quote an old title- “using narrative means for a commercial and corporate ends”, sold out the soul of story and what stories are meant to be about?
I wonder if once stories become the servants of selling they become qualitatively different to stories that are created for the joy of telling? Stories are free agents. They resist serving any master, and refuse being colonized or being instrumentalized. That is why we are always so suspicious of the “official story.” It means Toyota or GM love telling us that they make the safest cars, or the head of NSA promising they are not spying on Americans, or that Drones are not assassinating citizens. We have learned to be skeptical, because invariably, a different story soon leaks out. All these carefully crafted narratives are exposed as arguments or sermons masquerading as fairy tales. They are so over-determined that they are not stories at all but cleverly crafted propaganda, selling us something other than the story itself. They come loaded down with an agenda.
If we know anything about stories, we know their power works best when they disturb and upend, whey they make a farce of our over serious intentions. They are biblical stories like the story of Nathan and King David where the prophet tells the story of injustice that enrages the King who demands,”Bring me that man!” and the prophet shoots back, “You are the Man!.’ Or in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the play within the play was his trick” to catch the conscience of the King.” How many of us are telling stories that catch the conscience of our consumer culture, our leaders, our bosses, our fellow storytellers?
On the way to the bank, did we lose the leading edge of story that so excited us twenty years ago? Did we sell out? Did we have a choice? And do we have one now?