The ubiquitous storytelling

Storytelling is everywhere!

If you saw the title and opened this article, chances are you’ve been trained to accept the importance of storytelling like Newton’s Laws to physics. 100% onboard with this acknowledgement, I want to spotlight the presence of the storytelling technique in a few very different areas that I’ve been exploring.

0. A powerful language native to human minds

First of all, why storytelling? What makes it so unique?

Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that a “story” is an “account of events”. What it didn’t call out is, it is the most natural way of accounting for events: most intuitive to and adaptable by human minds. Ever since we were kids, we were eager to hear stories – that was our introduction to the outside world. Names, dates and data escape from our minds quickly, but we are hard-wired to remember good stories. Storytelling is therefore not just a technique, but a powerful language native to human minds. This makes it one of the most human ways to communicate.

Let’s see where can we find traces of storytelling!

1. Tech

I’ll start in my home ground: Microsoft. Did you know that Microsoft has a Chief Storyteller? At Microsft, storytelling is becoming a fashion. As a PM (program manager), it is my bread and butter: a big part of my job is to tell customer stories to developers, engineering stories to leadership, industry stories to sponsors, product stories to customers… We the PM’s tell stories because we are communicators, and it is through storytelling that we make people understand each other without necessarily meeting them.

But storytelling doesn’t just stop at the PM’s. Storytelling trainings are being provided to Microsoft citizens in various disciplines. Microsoft is investing in equipping its crew with this new skill, not unlike the rest of the tech world. One thing I noticed at UBC’s recent “CS50” computer science event, was how many presenters and panelists – elites from various areas across the computer science world – appeared well-trained at this skill that probably wasn’t part of our CS degree. People in academia and industry seem to be catching up; it makes me proud to be a tech community member.

2. Acting

It doesn’t take effort to see the link between acting and storytelling. Any acting job is a storytelling job – the only question is how truthful the story is told, and that truthfulness is what actors strive for: They establish eye lines to maintain the fourth wall. They let accent, costume and makeup speak for their characters’ background. They study the moments before and after to make a scene flow naturally. They surface and cap emotions to enrich the characters’ humanness… I could go on, but I don’t question your power of summarization. Actors use every power the nature give them to tell stories, and it is through these stories does the audience enjoy performing art.

3. Law

Some books on the topic of law I’ve read also emphasized the practice of storytelling in this field. Legal disputes happen when someone claims to have been illegally harmed by another. How does the plaitiff back up their cause of action?

Stories. Of course there’s an ocean of legal terms law professionals can use to describe what can be done here, but eventually what goes into the preponderance of evidence are stories: the party with the stronger story wins. But when the stakes are higher, such as in criminal prosecutions where both the alleged offence and the punishment are stronger, the stories are required to be more solid, sounding beyond a reasonable doubt.

If you review any law textbook, you will read about many cases; they constitute of stories told by many parties involved in the incidents, and some of them can be real page-turners. But seeing through all the stories different parties communicate and identifying the truth, can be such a challenge, which is where my great admiration for law people come from.

4. Medicine

As surprising as this may sound, doctors are trained in storytelling too! If you have seen medical dramas like House, you may remember House ordering tests, breaking and entering or even talking to patients to solve the puzzle (House joke intended). A perspective you may not have taken, as called out by Dr Lisa Sanders (technical advisor for the show House), is that those are actually story-building processes: information from/about the patient tells one story to the doctor, usually involving the patient’s previous health condition and what they went through after getting sick. The art of diagnostics, according to Dr Sanders, takes in that story and digests it into a story by the doctor. So how is this new story different?

The difference is that, this second story is told in the language of medicine. This story incorporates all bits of useful information told by the patient – verbally or otherwise – into a result where all pieces of the puzzle consolidate into a final diagnosis. But even then, storytelling doesn’t stop. Now is the time for the doctor to tell a third story, back to the patient. What now?

This third story happens after the diagnosis is made: now is the doctor’s turn to stretch the story that led to the diagnosis to fit the context of the patient’s life. Only when that story is told to the patient will they understand the situation and the stake, can they be expected to do what it takes to get better. Storytelling is once again the important communication tool that help doctors and patients work together toward the same goal.

X. Sources of inspiration

Every Patient Tells a Story, Lisa Sanders MD
Law & Econimics, Cooter & Ulen