Since I began writing about storytelling, authenticity and manipulation on this blog March 31, I have written several posts advocating the use of authentic stories of identity in a leader’s discourse. Sometimes, though, when I speak in public venues of the benefits of story-based approaches in leadership communication, I am reminded that others may have a somewhat different view of storytelling, or a different sense of what the term means. So, I am writing this column today to explain why storytelling has something of a bad reputation for some people, and then to show why there may be simple a problem of definition.
In France, where I have spent a significant portion of my working life, the very term “storytelling” often has negative implications. Since the Age of Reason in the late 17th and 18th centuries, a highly rational people such as the French have frowned on storytelling, due to its lack of rigor and exactness. In fact, the well-known and widely read classical author Jean de la Bruyère (1645-1696) is famous for saying that “one mark of a second-rate mind is to be always telling stories.”
In other languages and societies as well, the term “telling stories” is often employed with the connotation of stretching the truth, as in the English expression, “Have you been telling stories again?” This question implies that storytelling is a form of communication that can easily be abused and distorted in ways that may lead to accusations of manipulation or even lying.
Thus, I was not completely surprised in 2007 when Christian Salmon, a political writer for the prestigious daily newspaper Le Monde, published a book entitled “Storytelling: La machine à fabriquer des histoires et à formater les esprits” (rough translation: Storytelling is a system for inventing stories that brainwash people). In Salmon’s view, the basis of a modern political campaign (he analyzes the closely the campaign speeches of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, among others) is the art of creating stories that get “substituted” for reality.
For Salmon, storytelling is a dangerous propaganda tool, a “weapon of mass distraction” that politicians and their story-spinning consultants use to manipulate the electorate and garner votes. Storytelling is subtle and harmful because it replaces information with narrative, eliciting an emotional response that impedes the listeners’ rational judgment. As such, it is a way to get people to stop thinking, to vote with their hearts rather than their heads.
Of course, I would agree with the author that a leader’s stories can be potentially dangerous tools. As is true with any powerful form of expression, storytelling can be misused. Indeed, history and politics provide illustrations of all sorts of manipulation and abuse of power, often using stories and impression management as part of the process. The example of Adolf Hitler, whose brilliantly crafted speeches intertwined personal stories with symbolic tales from German mythology, demonstrates how a charismatic and manipulative individual can use storytelling for sinister purposes. Clearly, Hitler is an extreme case, an intriguing study in charisma’s dark side and in the use of storytelling to manipulate on a grand scale.
What I do object to in Salmon’s writing is his one-sided depiction of storytelling as propaganda, a tool for manipulation, and a way to brainwash. While it is interesting and well-written, to me his book is just another form of propaganda. It presents a limited view of storytelling and then condemns the entire concept.
Storytelling is not the problem. Storytelling is merely a device for communication, a tool that can be used to lead or to mislead. What bothers me in Salmon’s study is his blanket condemnation of the concept of narrative-based self-expression. In my view, we should condemn a leader’s abuse of the tool, not the tool itself.
In my own use of storytelling with leaders, I return continuously to the concept of leading by autobiography. Leaders use their personal stories of identity to express who they are and what they truly stand for. When done with authenticity, without the desire to misrepresent or mislead, storytelling remains what it has always been—the leader’s most effective form of self-expression.
Storytelling is one of the best tool to acquire approval,support or adhesion;targets can raise problèms not storytelling method