Thursday, October 20, 2011

Frosted by Storytelling: False Storytelling Sighting

Slightly tongue in cheek, but not much. . .

In a rare moment of casual TV watching, I stumbled upon one of these ubiquitous cooking challenge shows. The contestants were making cakes and trying to prove them to a line of random judges.

As the judges came to one table, the cook chef, said something like, "I have here for you today a chocolate cake that has three kinds of chocolate bits in both the cake and the icing. Enjoy."

The judges tasted. The judges pondered something highbrow to say.

And then, further proof-that-storytelling-is-now-a-fad fell from the judge's lips, "This is delicious and the chocolate pieces really tell a story." Without further comment other than everyone nodding their heads, the judges walked away.

It is a good thing that the TV universal remote controls are just $5 at Walmart. I keep breaking them throwing them at my television as I hear awful uses of the word "storytelling." I have no doubt that the producers of the TV program were in over-the-top joy over as someone placed into the show's dialogue the latest business catchphrase, "storytelling."

Sorry. Storytelling was taking place in the chocolate bits? A story was not even present in the chocolate as expressed during this program. The flavor wasn't storytelling. Here are four reasons why:

1. Storytelling requires words.

Chocolate bits cannot speak. Chocolate bits could represent something in a story, but the bits themselves are not storytelling. Only people, using words, do storytelling.

2. Storytelling is a spoken art form and business communication tool that needs the audience and the storyteller together, live and in person.

Chocolate bits do not speak. If the chef had said, "These rare chocolate bits in the cake are the last remains of hand-made chocolate my immigrant grandfather brought over from Germany. My family insisted that you, worshipful judges, be the last ones to savor them," we might have had the anecdotal start of a story. If I had heard something like this on the cooking show, then I could somehow forgive the judge for his error in the misuse of "storytelling."

3. Stories have arcs.

Taste alone is not the beginning, middle and end of a narrative. I do understand that flavors can remind the taster of a story. However, that is not what the judge said. He grabbed the word-of-the day and stated that these three flavors "really told a story."

A singular moment cannot be a story. The moment needs to be placed within the story arc in order to be called story. "My mother used to make a cake with three kinds of chocolate in it and…" That would be the start of a story.

4. Not every idea is (yet) a story.

Sadly, we no longer pay attention to our words. Every breath, uttered word, idea and fleeting thought is now called "story." There is only one answer to this: the power presence of "story" and "storytelling" has been completely diluted in the modern world. Flavors, utterances, insights, conversations are now all labeled "story" or worse "storytelling."

So, how do we fix these issues?

1. Develop some discipline in how you approach language

Say what you mean. Know that words have meaning. Walking is not Running even if both are ways to move. Eating is not Storytelling even if both, are, well they aren't the same thing. Definition and understanding empowers us to do great things with them.

2. Stop cheating with the story tool.

Storytelling cannot be done on film alone. It cannot be done by paint itself. It cannot be done alone by chocolate. It can only be done with people. If a client says to me, "We want storytelling in our company but can't commit any training time to it," I will tell them then that they can't have storytelling in their business. They will need another way to communicate their story, even if it is not as buzz-worthy as "storytelling." Recapping: People are for storytelling and chocolate is for eating.

3. Spend the time to learn how to tell a story.

In the least, learn how to make a true story from your great ideas. I know, your communications consultant may have told you that storytelling is easy and cost-free. You have been misled. Maybe you are assured that everyone in your organization is a storyteller. They are not, no more than every cook is a chef. I do have some hope for you: it is easier to become a good storyteller than it is to become a good chef. Both becomings take work and focus.

4. People count.

There may have been a great story to go with this chocolate-bitsy cake. To find the storytelling within, I would have to peer over the top of the cake, crumbs trailing on my lips, look into the eyes of the chef and say, "So, how did you become expert enough to make this cake I'm eating? How did you come across these fine chocolate bits?"

In that response, I would probably find the real story behind the chocolate. I might even find a storyteller within the chef.

That (you knew this pun was coming) would be the real icing on the cake.

P.S. The cake in the picture was one my 12-year-old made for the 24th wedding anniversary for my wife and I. It had one type of chocolate. It was delicious.

Sean Buvala has been storytelling for 25 years and is the author of the book, "Measures of Story: How to Create a Story from Floats and Anecdotes." Get your copy at or come by to learn more.


  1. one kind of chocolate ... haiku for the tastebuds?

  2. LOL. Mmm, chocolate-covered haiku.

  3. I'm going to start a storytelling workshop for chocolate pieces. People can count them. Great post!

  4. Yes, indeed, Limor. You have created a new niche. :-)

  5. He could have said. "There's a story behind this chocolate." OR "This chocolate reminds me of/makes me think of/is the start of/ a story." OR even "That chocolate could tell a story!"

    The judge was being poetic, but this "storytelling" that goes on everywhere, ads, film, music - what about in actual storytelling? - makes me nuts, too.

    Thanks, Sean.

  6. Yes, I agree, @Bookkm. Trigger story memories or cause one to wonder about the story behind the flavor- that surely could be the case. Thanks.

  7. Being charitable, perhaps "telling a story" is a new metaphor, like "hitting a home run." The judge might have said "This is delicious and the chocolate pieces really hit a home run." Or "the chocolate pieces really painted the Mona Lisa," or "raised a tsunami," or "trained an iguana to do the dishes." We know the chocolate can't really hit a home run, or tell a story. But... the chocolate surprised the judge... perhaps the flavor had an arc? I'm not saying it was a good metaphor, but it seems to me it's being used as a metaphor.


    I would have thrown the remote at the tv screen too.

  8. @Tim- you have a point. I know, for example, that when I am "tilting at windmills" I am neither abnormally tilting nor facing down an actual windmill. Sigh. Nonetheless, I do think that definitions do help us to communicate better. There are so many good ways to express a story that I'm sorry to see "telling" the only word people choose. It's so much more diverse than that.

  9. I'm late reading this one. I had the same reaction when reading a blog post by a landscape architect who called an installation "good visual storytelling." Yes, the space could evoke a story, just as the chocolate cake could evoke a story. That's still only potential, not the story itself, and therefore not storytelling. Buzz. Word.