Stop Misrepresenting Storytelling! ...


Judging from the comment in my post, “Can Storytelling Differentiate a PR Agency,” and an email that arrived shortly after (more on this in a minute), I appear to have gotten the attention of the National Storytelling Network.

They’re not pleased with me.

In my defense, I have come clean on numerous occasions making the point that the type of storytelling applied to business communications differs from pure storytelling and what professional storytellers do. Our approach “borrows” the techniques of storytelling to benefit the communications of our clients.

Here’s the email that takes me to the proverbial woodshed (with my commentary naturally):

As a professional storyteller, I continue to be frustrated by the misrepresentation of a very specific, age-old art form.

We’ve got the makings of a classic story arc with frustration serving as the crisis.

Storytelling is telling a story. Simple. Yet not.

No argument on this point. BTW, punctuation adds a nice touch.

For those of us who have honed our crafts, learned stories, traced their origins, polished phrases, worked on gestures and facial expressions all meant to entertain and edify a listening audience, the use of the word “storytelling” to describe any other process or product is just plain wrong.

It seems reasonable to have different types of storytelling. I don’t think anyone confuses oral storytelling or professional storytelling with selling pancake syrup.

PR agents are no storyteller. Ad execs are not storytellers. Novelists and film makers are not storyteller. Yes, what they do is an art form. But so is storytelling.

Advertising is not storytelling? You may convey a min story compressed into 1-2 minutes in order to sell a product. A vignette, perhaps. But not a story.

And certainly not storytelling.

Good to know there’s a time requirement for a story. And really? You don’t think Spielberg is a storyteller?

Our very identity is being hijacked. Our art form is being diluted and misrepresented.

Please, please, find another word. Be specific. About what you do.  About what we do.

No one dislikes a hyjacking more than me. Let’s find the middle ground. I suggest you make an effort to use the phrase “oral storytelling” or “professional storytelling,” and I will be conscious of applying phrases like “storytelling techniques” and “brand storytelling.”

It truly makes a difference.

Check out National Storytelling Network, would you please?  You will be delighted, entertained, educated. perhaps you will understand why this is such an issue to so many of us!

You got it! I’ll check it out!

Kind thanks!

L. Schuyler Ford

At this point, I could say I’ll report back on how this story unfolds.

But according to L. Schuyler, that would be “plain wrong.”

So let’s go with — if this lively debate takes another twist, I’ll be happy to share it in a second post.


  • Dan Holden

    As one who has worked as a journalist, blogger, PR manager, short story and screenwriter, I can relate to pretty much all sides of this debate. The point, I think, is that *thinking of* and *planning* communications with the art of storytelling in mind helps the agency and its client rise above the millions of news releases and emails that get sent out every year. A problem I see all the time is that companies think of their output in terms of launches that have a specific beginning and end point, like a story, but both are guided by budget or the necessity to move on to the next launch, rather than any attempt to create a cohesive narrative that demonstrates relevance to the larger story of what challenges us as people on a daily basis. Every good story needs to involve the audience, and that requires identification. All of which is to say that the elements of storytelling are very relevant to business communications.

    • hoffman

      Well put Dan.

      Your point about a “cohesive narrative” captures the challenge for business communicators. We often don’t have more than 150 words or five minutes to grab the audience’s interest; hence, storytelling techniques.

  • Chara

    I have the unique perspective of a woman who is married to a PR professional but also has a master’s degree in Storytelling, and worked for the National Storytelling Network.
    Let me assure you that you probably haven’t caught the attention of the National Storytelling Network, just one of it’s passionate, talented members. I know Ms. Ford by reputation and she is an excellent storyteller and she touches on something that many of us feel. Storytelling is a seminal art, and many things stem from storytelling that get labeled “Storytelling” that are not referring to the art form. It gets frustrating as an artist, especially when you spend a lot of time trying to convince people that your art is actually worthwhile and worth paying for.
    I think that what Ms. Ford might be trying to say is that you can use a story to communicate and you can use it to create. There is a very fine difference. In fact, I would say that it is similar to the connection between a graphic designer and a painter.
    While it doesn’t touch on this particular topic, I would recommend that you check out Lori Silverman’s book, “Wake Me Up When the Data is Over.” The National Storytelling Network sponsored the writing of the book (and I did a few of the interviews) and it speaks for a portion of their membership who do, in fact, use Storytelling in business.

    • hoffman

      I appreciate hearing the different perspectives.

      I like your analogy comparing a graphic designer and a painter because it shows how muddy this topic can become. Like a painter, many graphic designers would say they create art (or artwork). Is an illustration art if it’s earmarked for commercial purposes? I suspect the person in charge of covers for the The New Yorker would say yes. And where goes a graffiti artist fit into this picture?

      It seems like the more attention brought to this umbrella topic called storytelling, the better for all of us.

    • hoffman

      BTW, I will check out the book.

  • Carol Rice, Founding Editor

    I’ve spent years serving and working in the “oral storytelling”/”professional storytelling” community. NOT as a storyteller, mind you. As you might guess, their definitions would never allow it. Many are dear friends but I don’t sympathize with this behavior (calling people out for using a word they don’t own). I have seen an odd sense of arrogance and ownership in their ranks, almost a sense that they invented it. The first comment from Michelle Mazur, in my opinion, nails the problem. NSN and other storytelling organizations don’t speak for everyone in their community, but as a whole, would be well-served to spend time collectively and individually defining their art, claiming their space, educating and marketing their own message rather than copying or policing others.

    There’s sort of a strange hypocrisy that rather than be happy the power of story is being discovered and re-discovered in so many walks of life, there is an odd bitterness and resentment toward anyone outside of their community that attempts it. I have sadly seen many (not all) in the community waste precious energy being concerned about who is using a broad term of art such as “story” or “storytelling”. When rather, as wordsmiths, we would all be better served if that time were spent “hon[ing] [their] crafts, learn[ing] stories, trac[ing] their origins, polish[ing] phrases, work[ing] on gestures and facial expressions…” so we can all be entertained, and afterwards maybe even sing a round of Kumbaya together.

    • hoffman

      Well put! Thanks for taking the time to share a different point of view. I have a dreadful voice, but would still sign up for that round of Kumbaya.

  • Margaret Meyers, Vice-Chair, National Storytelling Network

    With over 1600 members, the National Storytelling Network represents storytellers of all kinds. Our mission statement is this: “The National Storytelling Network brings together and supports individuals and organizations that use the power of story in all its forms. We advocate for the preservation and growth of the art of storytelling.” So we embrace your work, Mr. Hoffman! Your new graphic (Can Storytelling Differentiate a PR Agency?) shows you get what story is about.

    To understand those who worry about the use of the word “storytelling,” imagine a performance storyteller applying for a performance grant from the NEA or its affiliates and (until recently) not finding a box to check for “storyteller.” We have had to work hard to get official recognition of storytelling as a performance art. It is a hot topic for our performance storytellers.

    Yet many of our storytellers use stories in organizations, in health care, working with prisoners and with the elderly. At our last conference, Joe Lambert of the Center for Digital Storytelling was one of the major presenters. As an organization, we are connecting to anyone who is using stories.

    Hearing someone tell stories aloud and in person has a special magic. It would be nice to have special word for that, but language is a consensual reality and no one owns the words. Instead, all storytellers will continue to use stories with all their power. And the out-loud storytellers will continue to work on their PR so that others understand their unique art as performing artists.

    I applaud your deep interest in good stories!

    • hoffman

      Hi Margaret,

      Your narrative is the perfect way to cap this discussion. I appreciate your inclusive viewpoint.

      While a student of storytelling from a business perspective, I love looking at the topic from all directions. The owner of an independent bookstore was kind enough to answer my questions for a Q&A post that will run next Monday. Some time ago I wrote about a lexiographer who wrote a dictionary of slang. I suppose my point is, there is joy to be found in all types of communications.


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