Lucy Kellaway: Dentists and plumbers do not tell stories. Nor should you

To see storytelling as my most valuable asset is idiotic and shows the craze has gone too far

Lucy Kellaway: “That the corporate world is so very badly in need of storytellers is a very bad sign. It shows that we don’t think our jobs are enough without them.” Photograph: Getty Images

Lucy Kellaway: “That the corporate world is so very badly in need of storytellers is a very bad sign. It shows that we don’t think our jobs are enough without them.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

What is your most valuable asset?

If you take the question in monetary terms, the answer is probably your house. Equally, you could say it was your health, family, time, or your brain. Yet according to a new book by Carmine Gallo, a former journalist, your most valuable asset is none of the above. It is your story.

Although I have the greatest respect for my own story, as I plunder it often enough in my columns, to see it as my most valuable asset is idiotic. It shows the storytelling craze has gone too far.

I first wrote about the fad more than a decade ago. I remember ridiculing an earnest American who had written a book, Around the Corporate Campfire, in which she urged people to “develop red-hot, value-based stories that spread like wildfire and propel them toward their vision”.

She was right about the wildfire. Indeed, the corporate campfire has spread so dangerously, it is time to call the fire brigade.

I know a bit about stories as I’m a storyteller by profession. That is to say, I am a journalist, and stories are what we produce. Yet now everyone is a storyteller. Doctors no longer exist merely to diagnose brain tumours; they are meant to tell stories too. Architects are supposed to be doing the same. The latter is particularly irritating to me, as I live in a house designed by a visionary architect that leaks every time it rains – making me long for less focus on stories, and more on designing structures that are watertight.

Even mathematicians and scientists are now urged to present their work as stories. Most preposterous of all, the craze has spread to auditors.

The head of HR at KPMG recently wrote a blog in which he proudly described his firm’s “higher purpose initiative” – which has resulted in employees sending in 42,000 personal stories about how they are changing the world. You could say this was heart-warming, though as KPMG was the firm that did the audits on HBOS, Countrywide Financial and Quindell, one worries that it is being distracted from the lower purpose of doing the day job competently.

Yet what distresses me most is that big name novelists are getting behind the fad. If a few impoverished writers are fleecing story-crazed corporates, that is fine. But last week I read in Fast Company that Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has become chief storytelling officer at the image consultancy Wolff Olins. This is as sad as it is inexplicable. How could the man who wrote the brilliantly funny How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia accept such a pompous, ludicrous title? Storytellers can never be a chief anything, let alone an officer. They have no place in the C-suite.

There is an inverse relationship between how often companies talk about storytelling and their ability to use words nicely. Job advertisements now routinely specify “outstanding storytelling skillsets”, while on LinkedIn a company called DialogTech is looking for a chief storyteller who “will create creative and innovative marketing material that resonates with our target audience and compels them to engage with our brand across multiple touchpoints”. Bingo: 14 cliched words in one sentence.

Stories in the right place are an excellent thing. The Bible has some pretty good ones. Every journalist knows that if you have to write a dull article about tax changes you must leaven it by finding a real person to emote about how the change will render their life impossible/fantastic.

We all like stories because we like emotion, and because they are easy for our befuddled brains to follow. They liven things up. They cheer us up. They can inspire us.

This is to state the obvious. There is nothing magic about it. There is no need for a fad, or for Gallo in The Storyteller’s Secret to peddle the standard neurological guff about how “masterful storytelling triggers neurochemicals in our brains to pay attention (cortisol) and to feel empathy (oxytocin)”.

The trouble with stories is that to have any effect they have to be good ones – and most people are rubbish at telling them. A further problem is that the more interesting you make them, the less likely they are to be true.

At the start of this column I said everyone was a storyteller. That turns out to be a tall story. After tireless work on Google I have found two occupations that are still strangers to storytelling – plumbers and dentists.

This stands to reason. If you need a root canal you most emphatically do not want a story; you want someone who can master one of those super-skinny dental drills. Ditto with plumbing. Plumbers don’t tell stories because they are too busy unblocking your toilet.

That the corporate world is so very badly in need of storytellers is a very bad sign. It shows that we don’t think our jobs are enough without them.

lucy.kellaway@ft.com Twitter: @lucykellaway

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015

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