story skepticism

I have been thinking about storytelling lately as a lot of people are talking about it as essential for business, leadership, and whatever ails you. I have discussed it a few times over the years and have reviewed these thoughts. It appears that in the network era, storytelling is being retrieved, especially through podcasting and videos. Stories can be the glue, holding information together in some semblance of order, for our brains to process into knowledge.

We are storytelling creatures. Shawn Callahan noted that, “Our memories evolved to hunt, gather & avoid danger. Now we have great memories for places, faces & emotions. Why stories are memorable.” Stories are a key factor in how we learn, especially socially. Roger Schank observed that, “Comprehension is mapping your stories onto mine.” Stories are how we best remember and a story can be thought of as what happens in the gap between expectations and results.

Here is an example from Canadian infantry soldiers in Afghanistan.

“ When they are out in the field and return from a patrol, the exhausted soldiers relax together in small, tightly-knit groups – [Professor Anne] Irwin calls them ‘nesting circles’ – and recount the events of the day or the mission. Each soldier contributes a story, an anecdote or even a joke, adding stock and spice into what becomes a collective stew of experiences, she said. They also playfully insult each other. The storytelling not only helps forge the individual identity of each soldier, it builds interpersonal relationships that can have a bearing on how well the unit performs on the battlefield.” —John Cotter, Canadian Press, July 03, 2006

In business, stories are an important medium for marketing and communications.

“As I’ve said before, storytelling is perhaps the most important skill a 21st century business can develop. This is certainly the case with marketing — stories build deep relationships with audiences in ways advertisements don’t and coupons nigh can’t. But it’s also the case with product.” —Shane Snow

We are more open to receiving stories than we are to understanding facts and logical arguments.

“When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.” —Jonathan Gottschall

Stories can therefore promote positive or negative social movements.

“While Harriet Beecher Stowe shamed Americans about the United States’ dehumanization of African Americans and slavery, Ayn Rand removed Americans’ guilt for being selfish and uncaring about anyone except themselves. Not only did Rand make it ‘moral’ for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she ‘liberated’ millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.” —How Ayn Rand Helped Make the US Into a Selfish, Greedy Nation

But are stories that come from sources of power merely tools to control us?

“It’s received wisdom in learning that storytelling and narrative are unquestionably good. But is it? Plato warned against filling young minds with fixed narratives and I’m coming round to a similar view, but with a twist. I’ve always been a big fan of sports and more recently of reality TV. Add to this computer games, virtual worlds, blogging, wikis, social networks, email, messenger and skype, and I find that most (not all) of what I really love is relatively unscripted, open, fluid, and often with more than a touch of ‘play’.

The top-down, command and control, baby-boomer culture is really starting to annoy me. The more I watch prescribed movies and TV, with their fixed plot structure, and abandon the publishing hyped ‘modern’ novel, the more I enjoy life. There’s an obsession with ‘stories’ that borders on the manic in learning, the arts and media. They really do want us to open our mouths and swallow.” —Donald Clark

While storytelling skills may be important, a critical network era skill will be the ability to deconstruct stories. Thinking critically about how a story affects us emotionally is important before hitting the Tweet or Post buttons that are now so handy on our smart devices. The medium is the message, and that medium is able to route around our rational brain and go straight to our most primitive feelings. We need to become story skeptics so all those emerging master storytellers do not lead us astray.


We all need to be story skeptics in an age of pervasive media

14 Responses to “story skepticism”

  1. Francois

    Another deep reflexion. Thanks Harold.
    Knowledge + story … wow.
    That certainly beats the crap out of the plethora of procedures and rules our organizations are pushing onto their employees.

  2. tonyjoyce

    Thanks for bringing up this subject, it is an important aspect of both KM and leadership. I don’t think deconstructing stories will tell that much, because that’s not the way organizations learn. It is the telling and retelling of stories that matter most, as the repetition amplifies the similarities, and differences, in stories about work. I might be old fashioned in recalling Wenger’s COPs, but if you don’t have that robust conversations then I fear your stories are artificial and analysis will lead you astray.

    • Harold Jarche

      My point is that stories are effective. We have to be careful that the stories we are told, especially from sources of power, do not control us. For example, telling and retelling Ayn Rand’s stories will only reinforce a culture of exclusion. Robust as these conversations may be.

  3. Sam Glickman

    Your welcome, Harold. Will’s perspectives and clarity may focus on education but I’ve shared them with people in other areas who find them very valuable. I shared your post along with the articles I listed above with the Chief Product and Brand Evangelist of a company developing stories for VR applications. I originally encountered her in a discussion about the lasting influence of VR (and older media) on ethical perceptions. She found it very valuable and included it to her teams references for development strategies.

  4. shobana

    “We need to become story skeptics so all those emerging master storytellers do not lead us astray”. What an eye-opener! All educators are focusing on the importance of storytelling. But, we need to stop for a moment to find out if the knowledge +story that we are creating will definitely create a welfare state. What will be the end result? Thanks a lot for helping people to think.

  5. Peter Isackson

    There are stories that are designed to guide or manipulate your thinking — Ayn Rand is a fitting example — and stories that open horizons. What’s the difference? Irony or the effect of multiple perspectives, building awareness of contrasting points of view. Irony make us wonder about the questions raised in the story line. It refuses to park us in a comfort zone.
    Learners (i.e. people) should have the freedom to rewrite the stories they listen to, create new angles. We’ve been working for years on giving learners the means of not only doing this but also seeing it as normal, rather than exceptional. Understanding includes peripheral vision and not just foreground focus.

    • Harold Jarche

      Excellent point about re-writing stories, Peter. In “The Educated Mind”, Kieran Egan identifies 5 levels of understanding, with Ironic Thinking at the top.

      1. Somatic – (before language acquisition) the physical abilities of one’s own body are discovered, as are our emotions; somatic understanding includes the communicating activity that precedes the development of language; as the child grows and learns language, this kind of understanding survives in the way children “model their overall social structure in play”.

      2. Mythic – binary opposites (e.g. Tall/Short or Good/Evil), images, metaphor, and story-structure are prominent tools in pre-literate sense-making.

      3. Romantic – the limits of reality are discovered and rational thinking begins, connected with the development of literacy. Egan connects this stage with the desire to explore the limits of reality, an interest in the transcendent qualities of things, and “engagement with knowledge represented as a product of human emotions and intentions”

      4. Philosophic – the discovery of principles which underlie patterns and limits found in data; ordering knowledge into coherent general schemes.

      5. Ironic – it involves the “mental flexibility to recognize how inadequately flexible are our minds, and the languages we use, to the world we try to represent in them”; it therefore includes the ability to consider alternative philosophic explanations, and is characterized by a Socratic stance in the world.

  6. kia (@pocojump)

    Judging the truth of stories is like judging the truth of a portrait drawing by Holbein. We never saw any of the people in those portraits he did of people in the court of Henry VIII. We don’t have any facts to compare them to. We don’t have anything to compare the people in Jane Austen’s novels to, either. And yet we believe them. And it is not hard to imagine in either case that another artist or writer, marshalling many more facts about the subjects, could still make a portrait or a character that is not accurate in spite of their inclusion of all those facts. When, for example, also, it came out that the writer James Frey had made up some of the material in his memoir about drug addiction, it was an instance of a double failure. He had to make his facts more “literary” by making up more sensational ones (his idea of literary, not mine) and at the same time he didn’t want to write a book that was “merely literary.” That the book was supposed to be factual was intended to give it weight that a merely literary book could not have. If he had conceptualized his facts truthfully–if he had judged them right, that is–he would not have needed to “embellish” them. And if he had understood the power of fictional imagining he would not have needed to try to boost the importance of the book by making it factual. Jane Austen didn’t need to make Pride and Prejudice true to facts. She had to make it true to imagination, to how we conceptualize experience and represent it to ourselves. A novel, a story, is an representation of experiencing. This is a big work because we live inside our conceptualization of experience; we don’t actually live inside of a stack of facts. To the question how do we know whether a story is told for the purpose of manipulation or truth-telling, well, we have about two thousand years of literature, experience of reading and experience of writing and storytelling, and that is what we used to learn it from until in the 20th century we began, for various reasons, to think that literature was 1) propaganda; 2) evidence of psychosis; or 3) a pastime for self-indulgent dilletantes. It continues to exist though, and if you read enough of it, and you think about it, hard, you get judgment, for which there is no formula. And in story telling, anything written to a formula is likely to show it, like the bolts sticking out of the side of Frankenstein’s neck, no matter how noble the intentions with which it was summoned forth.

  7. Ray Jimenez

    Harold, Excellent insights. Thanks for sharing. Stories are ways we communicate our experiences. And your caution is warranted that in the world of networks, where messages could be instantly viral, we need to take a pause, reflect and ponder. What I have noticed is that the lack of critical thinking causes many of us to make intuitive value judgments, if not tested with critical reflection, and may be biased, limited or myopic. Stories must be processed with sound thinking. Ray

  8. Harold Jarche

    Yes, at times it seems that we are collectively reverting back to Binary thinking.


    There is some pretty radical philosophy wandering about that argues, for example, that all historical narrative is…wrong. The book is “How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories” and the author is Alex Rosenberg. There is a review here ( I am very unsure about these kinds of philosophical arguments, but I do admire those who can cross boundaries like the ones he is doing here.
    As a writing instructor, I argue long and hard for my students to use their own narratives or those of others any time they are explaining an idea or arguing for a particular point of view. This book challenges what has gone largely unchallenged–that narrative is an unalloyed good. Maybe it is not.

    It is holiday break so I will explore this further and what it means to my writing practice.


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