Storytelling, buzzwords and the loss of meaning

I gave a talk this week at PING:Helsinki about storytelling to a group of people working in social media and marketing. There were a bunch of Instagrammers there, YouTubers, bloggers and so on, and as I was writing my talk and seeking inspiration, the first thing that I thought of was this video by Stefan Sagmeister:

“Storytelling” has become the latest buzzword in business, especially in marketing. Telling your “brand story”, re-imagining your company as a story–it makes one long for the days when the marketing world was exhorting individuals to become “personal brands”, telling their own individual stories. Now entire companies are getting into the game.

Sagmeister points out that this is bullshit. Real stories, like the ones made by novelists or filmmakers, take a lifetime of study, practice, and hard work to realize. Journalists know how to tell stories, and some bloggers too. But most of those YouTubers, Instagrammers and marketers have not mastered the form. They’re doing something though. If it is not storytelling, then what is it?

The reason everyone wants to be a storyteller, even if they’re not, is that stories have a magical power of persuasion and seduction. Stories enrapture us, absorb our attention. They take the messy business of living, and wrap it into a tidy package from which meaning, beauty, insight and truth can be gotten.

The snack-sized postings on social media rarely add up to the full meal that make up a real story. If you were to take a long view, and follow a feed or stream through time, you might be able to discern the ghost of a story in the stream, but it wouldn’t be a story until it was written down, and given the shape of a story, with its rising action, climax and conclusion.

The loss of a word is a terrible thing, and though I don’t think the word “storytelling” is under any real threat, Sagmeister is right in calling out its misuse. The importance of using words correctly was spelled out in Joseph Brodsky’s 1988 Commencement Address at the University of Michigan in which he says:

Now and in the time to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, often remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That doesn’t go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis — and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with a magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap, but even the most expensive among them (those equipped with a magnifying glass) cost far less than a single visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit one nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.

I am a dictionary lover, and was both happy and sad to see a whole pile of dictionaries available on the free rack outside our local bookstore. You may find the same. Pick one up, read it daily. I agree with Brodsky here. Reading the dictionary will expand your vocabulary, and with it, your experience of living. And defend those words, and their meanings.  Be alert to when they are under threat, and cautious when you hear buzzwords buzzing about.

This is especially important during a time where the dumbed-down articulations of a demagogue are gaining followers in the U.S. government.

Further Reading

Things I have learned in my life so far. One of my favorite design books! A folder of pamphlets showcasing Sagmeister’s work, but also his sharp humor and the wisdom he’s gathered along the way.


On Grief and Reason by Joseph Brodsky is a collection of essays that includes his commencement address, the lecture he gave upon accepting the Nobel Prize, an astonishing essay about living in an apartment in Soviet Russia, and other musings.


The Compact OED. A real dictionary-lover’s dictionary, this is the full 20 volume dictionary reproduced micro graphically. The history of the words, lost definitions, a word-lover’s delectation.