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Storytelling: Means/Ends Telling/Making

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by JLM Photography.

Disclaimer: Yet another blog post without a destination in mind; this is in the vein of open ended wondering, probably ripe for shooting arrows at. Batteries not included, void where prohibited.

I’ve been dabbling, writing, teaching about digital storytelling for years, I still cannot tell you what it is, as a definition. For sometime, I’;ve had this niggling question that has been knocking to be written out. It is a question.

Is there a difference (or anything meaningful) in making a distinction between when storytelling is used as a strategy for some other goal as opposed to a goal in itself (just to tell a story)?

A few months ago I was at a conference, and sitting in a session on SEO. OI think it was because I did not move quick enough out of the previous session, and got trapped in the middle of a row.

A woman got up in front of the room; she was a good speaker, enthusiastic, and introduced her SEO company and explained what they do.

“We are just storytellers. Period.”

I got little queasy.

I mean c’mon, you get paid money to improve some company’s placement in search results. Yes, you tell a “story” of that company, but its for the express purpose of a business advantage.

Ugh, am I some kind of holier than thou storytelling snob?

It’s the core of consulting firms who help

clients define and give voice to what’s best and most distinctive about them–and use the power of who they really are to create compelling brands, develop inspired leaders and deeply engage their workforces.

I mean that actually sound compelling and something I’d want if I was some CEO.

And then it becomes a thing we do to tell stories with data (and people I really respect do a lot of powerful work here)– when I look at sites like this, they are dominated by the tools and the techniques, and I am not rarely seeing the story. Yes, it is finding ways to elicit meaning, direction, maybe interpretation out of data, but are these really stories? With a jpurney of a hero, an arc, the overcoming of obstacles?

I have seem amazing ways to represent complex data, amazing ways to elicit trends, patterns, but is there really a story that data tells, or is it we tell stories with data? Or ???

I am not criticizing, I am just asking, fumbling with the question.

I do this myself in my workshops, where I urge people to use storytelling techniques to create a message that is more approachable, interesting etc.

So dont get me wrong, I am fully in support of using storytelling as a means to an end, but for some reason it bristles me when it comes off as being something more spiritual or ethereal (scracth that,s top using fancy words you neoliberal so and so…)

What is the difference, if any, when the end goal is just to craft a story, when Story (capital) ia the goal? I honestly was tipped here a while ago from a conversation with Barbara Ganley, when she told me why she loved the community of Cowbird, because it was to her, a place of people outside the mainstream, who were solely aiming for creating stories for the sake of stories.

Maybe it is a meaningless question. Likely.

Let me move on to another one.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by estelle f

I’ve been thinking to a lot about the word “storytelling” and how I bring it to workshops and presentations I have done (and are doing like next week). The word itself to me suggests the performance part, the idea that someone really good at it (like Barbara) are really powerful at the telling part. And while I believe that everyone does and can tell stories, the connotation that comes up is that really passionate, engaging person in the spotlight with a microphone.

If the word really mattered, I’d rather be talking about Storymaking than storytelling, because that is the stuff I like do- creating, manipulating, I feel more comfortable saying I am a Maker of stories than a Teller of stories.

Like I said, this is just one those free form posts of little purpose than to try and capture some thoughts. To be honest the name, and even the intent dont really matter as much as the making. Stop spending so much time retweeting links and gushing over TED Talks, get your butt over to ds106 for the next 5 weeks of the Twilight Zone flavored class Jim Groom is leading, and make some story art.

But if you got some insight or more likely, some criticism, bring ’em

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. What if….

    I am thinking “story” is a group activity even when you are making one up in yer head. At 3 am. In the total and blackest of black darkness.

    To draw a line between the teller and the the receiver is not productive and damaging to the purpose of the thing being created. The receiver is integral to the motion. With each new movement in the tale, there is instant interpretation that becomes then, the very thing being delivered.

    Even the static image or word has with it a new sense of time and place with each viewing and reimaging in a new brain.

    Art is a group activity: a therapy that moves in and out of time and space and redirects us all in the dance.

    You make the story you tell. And we thank you deeply for sharing and wondering and wandering aloud with us 🙂

  2. You are spot on, Todd. story telling (as opposed to narrative engineering) is a communal activity, shaped as much by the listeners as it is by the teller.

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