That’s the question posed by friend and colleague Peter Lewis after asking him to share his perspective on the state of storytelling to mark my blog hitting the big one-oh. Before jumping into the answer, a few back stories (naturally).
I’ve known Pete for some time, going back to his days laying the groundwork for how The New York Times covers technology. In 1985, the paper convened a small task force that included Pete and asked participants to imagine “The New York Times in the Year 2000.” Pete’s portrayal of the NYT on a computer screen didn’t quite elicit the response he hoped for summed up by then managing editor Arthur Gelb, “How do we know that this Internet isn’t just a fad, like CB radio?” Nine years later, Pete persuaded the paper to make him the paper’s full-time “foreign correspondent in cyberspace.”
Befitting his role roaming cyberspace, Pete wrote the story announcing the New York Times’ web site.
It’s safe to assume he wasn’t working off of a press release.
Later Pete moved to Fortune to practice long-form journalism — or at least a longer form than The NYT — and then took up teaching at Stanford’s J school. We had lost touch until we ended up sitting at the same table at the 2010 Innovation Journalism Conference put on by Stanford and David Nordfors.
It turned out that Pete had conducted training sessions to help scientists communicate their stories. As I learned more about Pete’s curriculum, his work sounded similar to our storytelling concept. Later chats and caffeine at the Coupa Café spiraled into an idea. If we combined our curriculums as well as our expertise — a mash up of journalism and public relations — the result would be a killer workshop on storytelling. That was the start of our storytelling curriculum that we’ve honing and conducting ever since.
In short, the man knows a thing or two about storytelling, journalism and banjos.
His take on storytelling today—
Lou, congratulations on the latest milestone of Ishmael’s Corner!
For 10 years you’ve been blogging and speaking about the effective use of storytelling techniques in business communications. A decade anniversary is a convenient excuse to pause and ask, is the argument for storytelling still as compelling?
Sometimes I wonder. Oft mornings, after ingesting the news and retching, I don’t see how traditional storytelling techniques can be effective in an era of “alternative facts,” “relative truth,” general media illiteracy, fake news, and distorted narratives deliberately designed to make people doubt everything they read or hear. The fundamental elements of storytelling haven’t changed since our ancestors huddled around campfires, but today the glow is from handheld screens. When you launched this blog, there were 1.4 million iPhone users in the world, and fewer than 100 million Facebook users. Donald Trump hadn’t yet discovered Twitter. Since then Apple has sold more than a billion iPhones and Facebook has added more than 2 billion users. And Trump has weaponized social media.
Social media has upheaved the storytelling landscape in the past 10 years. Stories are reduced to bumper-sticker length. They compete with torrents of stories from unknown and unreliable sources, stories that are increasingly designed for and targeted to individual viewers to exploit identified biases. There’s a crisis of public trust in business, in media, and in stories.
Storytelling is as old as humankind, an integral and unique element of the human experience. Nonetheless, storytellers need to adapt. I’m all for a good story, artfully told. But these days I think the story techniques have to be in service to a larger goal, as rivets in a sustained narrative designed to foster transparency, define values, and build trust.
— Peter Lewis