The Positives—and Perils—of Storytelling
Jonathan Gottschall, a distinguished fellow at Washington & Jefferson College, has researched storytelling and its unique power to inspire. But as he spoke at business conferences and grew aware of the popularity of storytelling in the corporate world, he came to realize just how much stories can also manipulate and destroy. From addressing climate change to the Theranos scandal, he explains the ins and outs of stories and argues for establishing a culture of honest storytelling in business. Gottschall is the author of the book The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears them Down.
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
Ten years ago when today’s guest published a book on the science of storytelling, he was surprised by the number of business professionals who read it. After all, Jonathan Gottschall is a US literary scholar. He expected his first book on humanity strange, ardent love affair with story to resonate with in English literature types and popular science readers. He did not know at that time just how much companies and businesses were flocking to storytelling because they wanted a piece of that power, that ability to deliver joy, values, and connection to people and consumers.
In fact, I first encountered Gottschall’s book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, in an MBA class. At the time, companies were hiring chief storytelling officers. Marketing gurus were explaining that if you couldn’t tell your story, you were just irrelevant. And digital media was democratizing access to storytelling mediums and audiences, but Gottschall says there’s also a dark side to storytelling. Like any powerful tool, people can wield stories for good or ill. And he argues that while it’s true that individuals and organizations need to cultivate the craft, they also need to prepare their defenses against cheats and manipulators. Honest storytelling, he says, is a moral imperative for companies and workers, and it is better business too.
Jonathan Gottschall’s newest book is The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down. Jonathan, thanks for coming on the show.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Thank you so much for inviting me.
CURT NICKISCH: Now, it seems like all we hear these days, especially with new companies and startups telling their origin stories that everything really is about story. Why are stories possibly a bad thing here?
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Well, the book is about something that I call the story paradox. And maybe I’ll just tell you a story myself, the one that I opened the book with. A few years ago, a man falls down an internet rabbit hole, where he learns that Jews are the great vampires of history. And believing that story, as he does, he gets in his truck and he drives to the leafy, prosperous neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, not far from where I live. He goes into the Tree of Life Synagogue. He begins shooting the place up, yelling, “All Jews must die.” He kills 11 people. He wounds many more, and it’s all because he is living inside this very ancient and very dumb story about Jewish evil. But from within that story, what he does makes a demented sort of sense.
And I remind people of this awful tragedy because to me it’s such a perfect microcosm of this awesome power stories have to engulf our minds and drive us toward madness. The book describes what I take to be a great law of history.
Monsters behave like monsters all the time, but to get good people, decent people to behave monstrously, you first have to tell them a story. A big lie, a dark conspiracy, some all encompassing religious mythology or political mythology. And so stories do an enormous amount of good in the world as no one seriously doubts. Sxtories are the best and most constructive force in the world. And oh yes, they are also the worst and most destructive force in the world.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. I suppose if you’re villainizing dragons or monsters, that’s very different from villainizing people or ways of doing things or economic systems, et cetera.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Right. I mean, the villainization thing is really at the core of my concerns. In your introduction, you talked about how the business world has flocked to a realization and a sort of consensus that storytelling is really important. And one of the things that people who believe this are likely to stress is that stories are these wonderful generators of empathy. They make us know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. They generate love and understanding and good feeling across our political and our religious divides and our gender divides and our sexuality divides and so on.
And it’s backed up by research and it is also so dangerously one sided. And so one sided that it almost becomes inaccurate. People stress all these warm feelings of connection and empathy and understanding that stories generate without even seeming to notice that a very different sort of energy is circulating very fast and very hard through these stories that we love. And it wouldn’t be far wrong to call that energy hate. We hate the bad guy of the story. We hate the villain who’s inflicting pain and suffering on the victims and the protagonists.
CURT NICKISCH: Let’s dwell inside stories here for a little bit before we pull them into the business world. You drew on a bunch of different disciplines for this book. How do you even just define what a story is and what kind of impact it has on us?
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Stories are hard to define. In some ways they’re hard to define. If you get a bunch of academics together, they’ll argue and argue about it. What’s a story? What is it in a story? What are the gray areas? If you get a bunch of regular people together, they sort of know it when they see it. And I’ve gone with this sort of commonsensical definition. A story, as I define it, is simply what happened, whether it’s an account of what happened in a novel or a history or a description of a little kids’ make-believe session.
We think of storytelling as this wildly, creative, artistic form. And in many ways it is. But no matter where you go in the world, no matter when you go there, you always find the same astonishing thing. These people tell stories on the whole, their stories are exactly like ours. The same basic obsessions, the same basic structures. In general, stories have a very simple structure where you have a protagonist. The protagonist is struggling against their obstacles to get something that they want.
It’s also a fairly safe bet to say that stories are about trouble. They’re about problems and struggle. Stories are not about people having good days. Stories are about people having bad days, often the very worst days of their whole lives and struggling to get through.
And finally, one more thing about stories, they’re are the natural meaning-making tool of Homo sapien.
CURT NICKISCH: You write that good drama is almost more important than representative truth in stories, right? And I think a lot of people would think that that’s a problem of media today, but it sounds like you’re saying that’s just a key driver of stories of all time.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Yeah. We’re not just talking about fiction stories here. We’re talking about stories of all types. Follow this, what I call a universal grammar of storytelling. So you find it in human dreams. Dreams are about characters trying to overcome their problems to get something that they want.
Little children play their make believe. They structure it the same way. News and journalism and gossip stories. Gossip stories are always about problems. Somebody did something bad, somebody was unethical. And when you get to things like news and journalism, you have a real problem because it’s hard to attract an audience unless you have a clear problem in a story, a clear moral of the story. And so it’s not surprising to see storytellers of all types flocking towards this most dramatic and most attention-getting structure of storytelling. The problem with it is if you take something like news or history, you get a very slanted vision of the world.
CURT NICKISCH: How have you seen businesses using storytelling and what are kind of your observations of that?
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Ever since I published The Storytelling Animal, I became part sort of on the edges of what I’ve called the storytelling industrial complex – keynoters and book writers and consultants who’ve traveled around the country and are giving lessons to businesses and other big organizations about how to tell more persuasive stories, more memorable stories, more contagious stories. And I’ve also been spreading the good news that stories are a good thing. They’re good in the sense that they do good in the world. And they’re good in the sense that they also happen to make good business. And I’ve become increasingly troubled by the overstatements or the things left out of the messaging.
So the first thing is that stories aren’t good. They just aren’t. Stories are just powerful. I think it’s better to think of the force of storytelling as a mercenary that sells itself just as eagerly to the bad guys.
The other thing about storytelling is as soon as you’re telling a story, you’re in an ethically fraught situation, because basically what you’re doing is you’re trying to use a form of messaging that’s not quite explicit. Storytelling is always sort of indirect. And that’s the power of storytelling, and so people don’t get as skeptical and they don’t get as suspicious.
In my years in the storytelling industrial complex and attending conferences and reading other people’s books, I’d noted quite frequently that the power of storytelling was often likened to a Trojan horse. And this is a pretty good analogy for how stories work. The idea is that you have this beautiful structure, this thing we all love. The Trojan horse is this beautiful work of art, but it’s smuggling in something else. It’s smuggling in a message. So if you watch a movie like Don’t Look Up on Netflix, it just came out, and you have this wonderful entertainment, all these big stars in it, but you’ve also sat through a two-hour infomercial for environmental sanity that people wouldn’t otherwise sit through, if not for all that entertainment value.
But the Trojan horse is a great metaphor in a sense that I don’t think people meant. The Trojan horse people forget is a weapon of war. It holds inside of its belly an event, a massacre. The Trojan horse is not a metaphor for the warm and fuzzy side of storytelling. It is a metaphor for the easy weaponization of stories.
CURT NICKISCH: What examples have you seen from the business world in particular that have employed storytelling to great effect?
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Years ago in my conference travels, I went out to give a keynote to a famous junk food company. And they’re selling it through wonderful storytelling. And the conference I went to was for the international marketing department. So it was full of hundreds of people from dozens and dozens, if not scores and scores of countries all around the world. And the question is, how could we take what I know about storytelling and the science of storytelling and the art and craft of storytelling and apply it to their storytelling towards the ultimate end of selling more of their product, not just in America, but all around the world?
And after I left, I was like, uh-oh, what did I just do? What I just did was I helped this company sell their diabetes juice to often times desperately poor people around the world, exporting American-style obesity without American style healthcare. And so it was just an example, to me, of the whole Trojan horse thing that I was just talking about that we can, through intention or ignorance, use storytelling in ways that might be good for us, might line our pockets, but might do a lot of damage in the world.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. I suppose that people have gotten just so much commercial messaging that the Trojan horse is kind of designed as a way to get past that defense that people have and deliver-
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: That’s exactly right.
CURT NICKISCH: … a message in a powerful way.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: That’s exactly right. If you give people arguments backed up with evidence, if you make classical, traditional arguments, people are very skeptical. People are very suspicious. It’s very hard to change people’s minds. But if you can get people into a condition that the psychologists call narrative transportation, and this is this wonderful sensation. It’s one of our favorite things about being alive. We come home at the end of the night and we turn on Netflix, or we open a great novel and we mentally teleport out of our own mundane, boring realities and we enter into these wonderful story worlds. This is called narrative transportation, and it’s an authentically altered state of consciousness. It’s a state of high rapt attention. We can pay attention for hours on end. And it’s also a state of high suggestibility. People are more open-minded when they’re in story land. And this is great when story’s potential to do good is in the foreground. But another way of putting this is that when we’re in story land, when we’re narratively transported, we’re a lot more gullible. We’re a lot more easy to mold and to manipulate.
CURT NICKISCH: Is that why we always trust the storyteller? It is striking that some of the most successful CEOs and individuals in business are truly very good storytellers.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I addressed in the book was, what are stories for in an ultimate sense? Yeah, they’re for entertainment. Yeah, they’re for education. Yeah, they are for selling stuff, whether it’s a soda pop or some sort of pro-social messaging campaign. What all human communication is for in an ultimate sense is something that I call sway. And what’s sway? Sway is influence. And storytelling. Isn’t just one way that human being compete for sway. It’s our most powerful way of swaying one another so hard that we may stay bent forever. So it’s not surprising to me that some of the most swayful individuals, not just in business culture, but in culture period are our best storytellers.
CURT NICKISCH: You wrote an article for hbr.org called Theranos and the Dark Side of Storytelling. Is Theranos a good example here to illustrate this with?
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Yeah, I think so. Theranos was sold on storytelling. I mean, there was nothing there except storytelling.
CURT NICKISCH: And just for anyone who doesn’t know, Theranos was a blood testing technology company that got a lot of funding, a lot of attention from the media, Elizabeth Holmes was the CEO, and she was recently convicted of lying to investors about the actual capability of her company’s technology.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Right. And the story was so wonderful and so inspiring. You had this female tech wizard, something that the culture really wanted and wanted to get behind. And you had a mission that she was on. Her why was essentially not to save the world, but at least to save the world a little bit by making the whole world a lot healthier and richer and so forth.
CURT NICKISCH: And the villain here is disease and cost.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Yeah.
CURT NICKISCH: Right? Which everybody can get behind.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Yes. It was just a wonderful story. And we were narratively transported by it. We were lost so deeply inside this story and we wanted this story to be true so badly that we lost all of our potential or all of our capacity for skepticism and we just lapped it up. And I actually feel a little bit of sympathy for Holmes. People wanted her story to be true so badly that they collaborated in it. Journalists didn’t press back. It’s not hard for me to imagine a different way of telling her story. Where you have a 19-year-old kid who starts out this business and gets a little bit in over her head and maybe tells a fib or two to get started and finds out, these people are never going to check up on me. They’re never going to push back on my narrative. And before you know, it gets out of control.
CURT NICKISCH: Where she even believes her own mythology. Yeah.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Yeah. You start to believe it. Right. And we can. And this is one of the great… Not great, but one of the main messages of my book, is that we have to guard against being narratively transported by our own stories as much as the other guys. We can get really, really drunk on our own Kool-Aid and really, really believe it. And probably that applies, to some extent, to somebody like Elizabeth Holmes.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s really interesting. And I think that’s an important potential lesson here for business leaders. A lot of stories are being told in the corporate world today and really well-intentioned and with a lot of evidence behind them, but these stories have to do with sustainability or diversity or a lot of noble things that companies are working towards, but stories are being told about them. And we have to be careful not to believe our own stories when they’re not really true is what you’re saying.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Yeah. You can end up using storytelling to create a mythology about yourself, a sort of heroic mythology about yourself and your organization. And sometimes that mythology may be true, but in other times it’s a sort of way of putting a patina of selflessness and altruism on top of basically selfish behavior.
It’s really easy. I thought about this a lot in terms of polarized American politics at each other’s throats nature of that right now. And it’s very, very easy to poke holes in the other guy’s stories. We’re really good at doing that. It’s really easy for us. It’s really fun. What’s difficult is to pay attention to our own stories and be suspicious of our own stories. So I had this sort of nightmarish image when I was writing the book and it was an image of people reading the book and nodding along happily and ticking off all the ways that my points and ideas and arguments apply to the narratives and to the people that they don’t like very much while never thinking to turn that skepticism around on themselves.
So one of the main take home points of the book is that these problems of the psychology of narrative, that’s what the book is about. The psychology of narrative. How our brains shape stories and the how stories shape our brains. These problems of narrative psychology are not a them problem. They are an us problem. As in, they are an everyone problem. We all have the tendency to get misled by stories. And it’s very, very easy for us to see this of other people, especially across our political divides, but it’s harder for us to see that this applies to us as well.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. You list tribalism as one of the negative impacts of storytelling, but that could also be powerful, though, in the business world, right? People get loyal to causes or companies or ways of doing business.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Yeah. Well, stories are simply the best tool that exists for binding people together, even diverse and fractious groups of people together into well-functioning tribes. They let us know who we are as a tribe. They let us know what our values are, what our rules are, what’s important to us.
The downside of this tribe forming function of storytelling is tribalism. It’s a sort of us, them tendency that runs through storytelling. There’s a classic structure to a story. You have a hero, you have a victim and you have a villain. And so stories in the act of forming the in-group are also forming the out-group. And oftentimes saying that that out-group, those people are villains and they are worthy of real punishment.
CURT NICKISCH: How do we change existing stories or narratives to fight something like environmental destruction or work towards a better way of doing business, for example?
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: This is the crucial question. We are storytelling animals. Stories are not going away. We couldn’t do without stories, even if we wanted to, even if we tried. So by the end of my book, which is pretty much a catalog of the negative aspects of storytelling in human life, I get to a sort of surprising conclusion. And the conclusion is that we should continue to tell stories because stories are not just at the heart of all of humanities largest problems. They’re also at the heart of the only hopeful solutions. Stories really do have the magical powers people attribute to them. They really are wonderful at generating empathy, love, charity, peace, but only if we can resist telling them in ways that are guaranteed not to work. So if we want to actually build bridges of narrative across our divides, rather than just blowing up the few bridges we have left, we have to resist, above all, this giddy temptation we have.
It’s a very natural temptation to tell stories where we are the heroes, people like us and the people on the other side, they are the flattened out villains in our morality tales. And that’s a very primitive and crude and natural way of telling stories. But villainizing the other side is not a recipe for social progress, is not a recipe for the sort of compromise that a democracy needs to actually function. What I fear it is, is a way of prosecuting a cold civil war of storytelling that is escalating towards something quite a lot worse.
CURT NICKISCH: Jonathan, we really appreciate you coming on the show to talk about stories, their power, and using the power in the best way.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: That’s Curt. It was an honor. I appreciate it.
CURT NICKISCH: Fellow, that’s Jonathan Gottschall. He is a distinguished fellow at Washington & Jefferson College and the author of the book, The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down.
If you like this episode, you might also like “What Anthropologists Can Teach Us About Work Culture”. That’s episode number 805. This episode with produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. And a big welcome to our new audio product manager, Ian Fox. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.