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James Whittaker is a technology executive focused on making the web a better place for users and developers. He is a former Googler, former professor and former startup founder. Follow him on Twitter @docjamesw.

The Storytelling Manifesto

The Storytelling Manifesto

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Tell us a story!

Since the dawn of humanity the storyteller has been the center of popular culture. It began around the campfires of our ancestors where without scripts, screens or props they spun yarns that did more than entertain. Storytellers were the creators of tradition. The origin of belief.

Stories, the naked spoken word, were the way news was spread. The way knowledge was acquired. The way we learned how to act, to survive and to coexist as a community. It was through our stories that our cultures evolved and became what they are today. The differences in our stories are the reasons that the Dutch are the Dutch, the Irish the Irish and the Chinese, Chinese.

If there is a stronger force in all of human behavior, I can’t name it. Where else do habits, beliefs, attitudes and culture get formed except as a result of the stories we tell? And our storytellers, those great orators who make stories come alive, are a tidal force for societal change. Jesus of Nazareth’s stories created a belief system that stands to this day even under the relentless assault of science. Julius Caesar’s speeches rallied the Romans to spread across most of the known world. Adolf Hitler stoked a nation to a world war with his oration and Winston Churchill ensured the world survived it with his own. How else could one counter the power of a story except with another, equally powerful story?

Nations, religions and even corporations flourish under good story tellers and flounder under poor ones. Where would Apple be without the storytelling prowess of Steve Jobs? What heights could Google, Microsoft or Yahoo reach with a good storyteller of their own?  

So who is wielding the storytelling power now? Who will replace Steve Jobs in corporate America and Carl Sagan in science? Where is our next Martin Luther King, Jr. for equality and the next JFK among our leaders? Truth is, we’re in a storytelling dead zone where the loud and the well-financed are drowning out the wise and the profound. We’ve ceded the stage to the media where stories of Duck Dynasty and Kim Kardashian overpower the stories of Al Gore and Bill Gates whose stories, in turn, overwhelm the stories of everyday people with big ideas but small voices.

This is too much power in the hands of too few. Loud stories are overwhelming us. Media-driven stories of greed and goofiness prevail. Shall we put our culture in the hands of the rich and the noisy? For the first time in history the Internet puts every storyteller on near equal ground. It’s time we step up to this stage and counter the noise with stories of our own.

So come all ye storytellers for science and for women. Step up you supporters of minority and gay rights. Who wants to bear the standard of the poor, of alternative lifestyles, of fairness and justice? Who will tell the world about education? The environment? Peace? Humanity? Who will carry on that campfire tradition of teaching custom and molding culture?

Storytelling, good storytelling, is the one skill that can even the playing field. Nothing else can draw attention to the human condition or to a good cause. When storytelling is absent, the merits of a cause, no matter how important, go unnoticed and unappreciated. You see, it doesn’t matter what you know, what you have or what you need if you can’t convey it to anyone else.

The world needs better storytellers but the very idea that the media will suddenly shift its vast storytelling resources from reality TV shows to stories about science, women, minorities, the environment and education is laughable. There is only one solution. We must learn to tell our own stories. We cannot allow this skill to atrophy. It’s time we reclaim our stories. It’s time to remember how to tell them. It’s time to deliver them with such power that, perhaps, as a whole, we drown out the loud and well-funded media.

The democratization of storytelling. That is what I seek. For it is in the story that the future lies.

Imagine for a moment what Sheryl Sandberg could achieve for women if she had the storytelling ability of Martin Luther King, Jr. How many more people could she excite with her Lean In message? Could she do for a gender what MLK did for a race? And what if every woman who felt passionate about the feminine cause could tell their stories with that same power? The result would shift society.

What if messages of peace were delivered with the stage presence of Winston Churchill? Would our t-shirts and shopping bags now read KEEP CALM AND LOVE ON? What if John F. Kennedy had promoted clean energy instead of space exploration? He put a man on the moon with his words. What could he have done for the planet we live on?

What if every teacher in every classroom on this planet had the oratory power of our greatest storytellers? The school day would be anticipated instead of dreaded. Society would change. It would demonstrate once and for all that the power isn’t the message. It’s in the story that conveys the message.

What I am calling for is simple but profound: the democratization of storytelling. Our ideas, our projects and our causes are the proverbial trees falling in an unwatched forest. Wrap those same ideas in a compelling and powerful story and they will echo across the planet. As an audience, humans are wired to consume stories. We’ve quite literally evolved as a species because of our stories and only our stories can continue that evolution. In recapturing our stories, we reclaim our future.

Every person has a story. Every cause needs a storyteller. Learn to be a storyteller because unless you are a candidate for a reality show, no one else is going to tell your story for you.

So tell us a story. Tell us a good story. And let that good story be one part of a symphony of stories that makes this world a better place.

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  • I appreciate your point of view! Important to keep in mind that Storytelling can make a real difference. And I agree with you that stories could contribute to the big issues of mankind even more as they do nowadays. In my humble opinion we need a better understanding on how to craft real good stories and the awareness that Storytelling is so much more than a buzzword

  • I totally agree on this. Instead of writing your journal to your notebook, why not leverage blog sites and share your thoughts. I've been doing this since 2008 - internal company blog and it is fulfilling to share your learnings to your peers.

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