The Voldemort of Stories

During the months of March and April, the Collaborative Services’ blog focused on the power of storytelling in marketing, communications and public involvement. Much of the content from our esteemed experts explained how powerful stories can be. And, no question, they indeed can be quite the messaging tool.

But there’s another story about stories to tell – a cautionary one. We are all consumers of stories we are hearing, as well as the ones we tell ourselves. So we are rounding out this series by taking a lesson about the dark the dark side of happily ever after.

First, yes, you should be wary of stories. That’s the opinion of Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University and at the Center for the Study of Public Choice. Here’s a link to a speech he gave in 2009, warning of the power of stories.

As an economist, he worries we can be too easily seduced by a story and make an ill-advised decision based upon it. Since we’re biologically programmed to respond to a story, we are vulnerable to them, he says. So we need to be careful of the stories we hear and what we choose to believe. Indeed, the better the story, the more wary you should be, he warns.

His thought: even though we love stories, we should also try to lessen our dependence on them when it comes to how we perceive our options.


(Credit: Continuum)

Well, he cites Christopher Booker’s, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, which offers that there are only a limited number of story lines. They are: monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. So if you have a tendency to think in stories, you are “telling yourself the same thing over and over again,” Cowen says in his presentation.

He also referenced a study that asked people how best to describe their lives. More than 50 percent said, “journey.”  Another 11 percent said, “a battle.” Still another 8 percent said, “novel.”  All, of course, are stories. But the right answer, Cowen suggests is actually, “mess.” But few people identified their lives this way even though life is often not a simple, straightforward narrative. It can be messy.

Mess isn’t bad, according to Cowen. Mess can be “liberating” and “empowering and “a way of drawing from multiple strengths.” His advice: Stop being so reliant on story themes to make sense of your life and “be comfortable with messy.”

He’s not alone in having concerns about stories and their ability to manipulate.

Which brings us to the second cautionary advice: beware the storyteller as well. John Sadowsky, a professor of Leadership at the Greboble Graduate School of Business in France, writes: “Storytelling is not the problem. Storytelling is merely a device for communication, a tool that can be used to lead or to mislead.

He points to the most infamous act of storytelling abuse, that of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler: “The example of Adolf Hitler, whose brilliantly crafted speeches intertwined personal stories with symbolic tales from German mythology, demonstrates how a charismatic and manipulative individual can use storytelling for sinister purposes.  Clearly, Hitler is an extreme case, an intriguing study in charisma’s dark side and in the use of storytelling to manipulate on a grand scale.”  For his full blog post, go here.

Hitler addressing a rally
(Credit: Unknown)

A third caution about stories: stretching beyond poetic license. This one comes from Terrence L. Gargiulo, author, international speaker, organizational development consultant, and group-process facilitator specializing in the use of stories based in Monterey. He tackled the subject in this white paper, Leaders & Stories: Thin Line Between Manipulation & Truthfulness.

“There are countless examples of how people abuse the power of tapping into the emotions and imaginations of others to coercively manipulate their constructs of reality. Clear violations such as con artists are easy to classify.” He doesn’t go as far as to say that stories have to be completely truthful, though, because stories, at their best, are “creative acts.” He quotes Mark Twain, “sometimes you have to lie a little bit to tell the truth.”

Gargiulo writes, “Stories told in the moment will adapt themselves to the language, vocabulary, and experience of listeners. It is a mark of an integrated storyteller to share stories in a way fitting to the audience. If that means elaborating upon an aspect of the story or coloring it with a nuance of detail previously untold or which stretches the factuality than I do not view this as either coercive or manipulative.”

So what’s the best way to hear a story? It’s in our power to listen, analyze, question and investigate.

We may be programmed to be captivated by stories, but we don’t have to be under their spell.

– – –

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services

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