Jonathan Gottschall is turning business storytelling into a toothless tiger

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 4, 2012
Filed in Business storytelling

Jonathan Gottschall, a literary scholar, has just written a piece for Fast Company called Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon and in the process has set back the field of business storytelling with his emphasis on fictitious stories.
I can imagine that being a literary scholar gets Jonathan entwined in myths and legends and literary works to a point where it must be hard for him to see the real life stories told every moment of every day in a company. A good business storyteller recounts things that have happened to them or tells the stories they hear about in their company or other companies, and always for a business purpose. Only then should they throw in one or two fictitious tales. For me it’s all about understanding the difference between Big ‘S’ (fictitious, crafted, marketing) and little ‘s’ (real-life, experiences, anecdotes) stories. Jonathan is focussed on Big ‘S’ storytelling. Big ‘S’ should be left for Hollywood. Successful business people are more effective telling little ‘s’ stories.

The simple fact is, executives feel more comfortable with little ‘s’ stories and consequently more likely to tell them. I met a CEO the other night at a fund raising dinner. He told me he went to New York to take part in a business storytelling session conducted by actors and everyone had to act out their story. He said it was a painful experience. “I felt like an idiot, it just wasn’t my thing.” I shared the Big ‘S’ vs little ‘s’ idea and the relief on his face was instant. I said, “Now you have to get good at noticing stories and retelling them.” You only get the benefits of business storytelling if leaders are telling stories.
I agree with Jonathan’s point that we need to base business storytelling on a foundation of research. There is defintely a lack of story-specific research being done and applied. But if you dig you will find all sorts of gems like this one we wrote about on how our brains sync when we listen to a story. The research is emerging. Pratitioners need to seek it out and apply the findings.
Executives are wary of made up stories. They duck for cover when you mention fairytales, myths or legends. Most hate the idea of writing their story or acting out a story. It just smacks of hippy idealism and a big waste of time. Jonathan triggers all these stereotypes turning the ultimate weapon into a toothless tiger.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Karen Dietz says:

    Right on Shawn!! Can’t believe I missed this when I reviewed the article. I’ve amended my review and added the link here to your comments. Thank you thank you for catching this and putting this post together.

  2. As you can tell this one got under my skin. We don’t need any more executives rolling their eyes when they hear about storytelling. Thanks for adding this post to your excellently curated collection of business story articles.

  3. Dear Shawn, I find this post puzzling. The article nowhere suggest that business storytellers should be making up fiction. The point is that true stories and fiction stories are usually structurally indistinguishable. Good stories–true or false–produce emotional absorption. There’s been good research done on how powerful fiction is as a persuasive tool. The point of the article was to call attention to this research and to suggest that it has relevance to the sort of stories told in business. (If this research holds for good fiction, it probably holds for good non-fiction stories too).
    As for the charge that the article is circular and tries to have it both ways…I’m puzzled by that too.I see the position I take not as circular, but as complex. Story is not an unequivocal good. Story is a tool, which like any other tool–hammers, computers, trojan horses–can be used for good or ill. So yes, we should use stories because they work so well. But we also have to realize that other storytellers don’t necessarily have our own best interests at heart.
    At least that’s how I see it.
    Best wishes to you all,

  4. Hi Jonathan, actually throughout your article you *suggest* that we should be focussed on fiction. You retell the Trojan Horse story, your video talks about Hamlet and myths and legends, you say “In fact, **fiction** seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.” But no where do you explicitly make the point you just made in your comment that true stories and fiction are structurally indistinguishable. So you lead the reader, at least me and a few other story professionals I know, to the conclusion that your are giving primacy to fables, myths and legends. You even finish by saying “We are creatures of story, and the process of changing one mind or the whole world ***must begin with “Once upon a time.”***” As you would well know, real stories never begin with once upon a time.
    You would have achieved a more balanced viewpoint if you would have told a couple of true stories yourself and demonstrated the practice of business storytelling.

  5. Thaler Pekar says:

    I found the essay quite circular and odd, Shawn: Gottschall’s premise is that “stories make us human” – but “defenseless”. That “the process of changing one mind or the whole world must begin with ‘Once upon a time.’ – but that we must “steel ourselves against” the very practice he promotes.
    Pleas for increasing human cynicism make me cynical, but not in the way he wants me to be! He doesn’t seem to think much of people. Observations from my years of work (and I am guessing yours), coupled with scientific research, show that humans are great judges of inauthentic stories and bull***t.
    Stories are a structural tool for presenting factual information and building trust. Gottschall does a disservice when he perpetuates the bifurcation of story and fact. And, he comes off as inauthentic.

  6. I’m with Jonathan in that I’m surprised this post got such a reaction from storytelling practitioners. There is nothing inauthentic about his post. In fact, he warns folks against the dangers of storytelling, which seems like something someone who cares about people would do. He didn’t talk about storytelling in a way that was flowery, hippie-ish, or that advocated fiction over first person. I thought the post was fine.

  7. Drew Mackie says:

    Just thought you might like to hear of another approach to fictitious storytelling that is “small s”. For a number of years we have been running group story sessions where teams of around 6 create the past and future history of a person, organisation or event. This is particulary suited to situations where you want to get at perceptions and prejudices. Participants can hide behind the fictitious character, company etc. to bring out stuff that they would normally be reluctant to articulate. We’ve used this approach mainly in public sector work to produce community cohesion baselines (600 participants) and to get business input into urban design policies.

  8. Shawn, thanks for your text (and Thaler for your comment).
    I have a question. Where do strategic stories (like this one from ASICS or personal long Gladwell-like legacy/past stories fit? They aren’t fiction but they’re not precisely anecdotes.
    Cheers from Mty, Mx!

  9. You can tell a real life experience at different levels and scales. And you can also move left and right along the story spectrum ( but you don’t want to fall into the uncanny valley of storytelling. Gladwell, like all good non-fiction writers moves effortlessly between the big story (broad an expansive) to the specific moments. The moments are what give your story life; it’s when you picture what’s happening and feel the emotion. But non of this are fairytales, legends, or what is at the Big S end of storytelling.

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