The Future Belongs to Storytellers

June 7, 2019

Great storytelling—the ability to weave facts and data into compelling narratives—has long been a valuable skill. Two dynamics have significantly increased its value over the past quarter century: (1) data is proliferating at breakneck speeds and (2) anyone can reach everyone around the world instantly. Now more than ever, we need storytellers to pull us out of the swamp of information we’ve created. We need storytellers to help us paint a positive picture of what’s possible on the road ahead.

Below is a passage from Robert McKee’s landmark screenwriting book, Story. One of my favorites on the topic of storytelling.

Rare as story talent is, we often meet people who seem to have it by nature, those street-corner raconteurs for whom storytelling is as easy as a smile. When, for example, coworkers gather around the coffee machine, the storytelling begins. It’s the currency of human contact. And whenever a half-dozen souls gather for this mid-morning ritual, there will always be at least one who has the gift.

Let’s say that this morning our storyteller tells her friends the story of “How I Put My Kids on the School Bus.” Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, she hooks everyone’s attention. She draws them into her spell, holding them slack-jawed over their coffee cups. She spins her tale, building them up, easing them down, making them laugh, maybe cry, holding all in high suspense until she pays it off with a dynamite last scene: “And that’s how I got the little nosepickers on the bus this morning.” Her coworkers lean back satisfied, muttering, “God, yes, Helen, my kids are just like that.”

Now let’s say the storytelling passes to the guy next to her who tells the others the heartrending tale of how his mother died over the weekend … and bores the hell out of everyone. His story is all on the surface, repetitious rambling from trivial detail to cliché: “She looked so good in her coffin.” Halfway through his rendition, the rest head back to the coffee pot for another cup, turning a deaf ear to his tale of grief.

Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly. Master storytellers know how to squeeze life out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the profound to the banal. You may have the insight of a Buddha, but if you cannot tell story, your ideas turn dry as chalk.

McKee, Robert. Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting (pp. 27-28). HarperCollins. 1997.