Storytelling in the 21st Century

Computer Keyboard

Storytelling has clearly achieved buzzword status, with more than 161 million Google entries at last count.

But what exactly is it? Not everyone is so sure anymore. Long the province of folklife festivals and children’s bedrooms, storytelling has invaded the realm of nonfiction, spreading to such venues as corporate boardrooms, hospitals, and of course, Moth StorySLAMs.

There are all kinds of storytelling twists these days, including the wildly popular Storytelling with Data programs, which help businesses creative more persuasive messages by wrapping  statistics into a narrative or presenting them in eye-popping visualizations.

I’ve been studying narrative techniques since college, when I was lucky enough to take a course at Yale with the late John Hersey. Called Form and Style in NonFiction Writing, the course explored how various methods common in fiction writing could be applied to prose. I still  remember reading the shield passage of the Iliad 40 years ago and learning how using metaphors, attending to the rhythms of words, and subtly using all five senses in a piece could lead to more compelling nonfiction.

Years later, when I was reporter assigned to cover a tedious budget hearing, I experimented with these techniques. Nothing made me happier than when a secretary read the story and told me how much she liked it, unable to figure out how I’d made such a dull topic so interesting. I knew. I’d channeled that Iliad passage and had managed to make an inherently boring subject surprisingly appealing.

Now, when I teach storytelling workshops, I work on four disparate topics: form, diction, use of emotion, and data visualization. While story organization is clearly important, it’s also critical to focus on diction, that is, the ways that words and phrases are actually used. After all, a writer can create the most engaging structure for a story, but if the sentences and paragraphs are confusing, then the narrative will be lost. I show participants how to use emotion, too, explaining why it can be the secret weapon for master storytellers. Finally, I discuss data visualization, demonstrating that many principles of good writing and visualization are exactly the same. Turns out that clutter, for instance, often the bane of clear writing, can also muck up charts and graphs.

For years, I’ve been teaching at Boston University’s Storytelling with Data seminars, now called Data + Narrative, and it’s common for those who attend the week-long program to have completely different ideas about what they want to learn. Some people want to focus only on data visualization, mentioning the popular data visualization book that Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, a former Google manager, wrote called “Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals.” Others expect to learn how to find and analyze data or discover how to seamlessly integrate data into a written text.

Clearly, the definition and uses of storytelling are changing in the 21st century, generating a lot of excitement — and sometimes confusion. But no matter how you define the term or how you use this ancient practice, the basic building blocks for creating great narratives continue to remain the same.