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Are We Putting Too Much Emphasis on Storytelling?

Monday, April 01, 2024 2:41 PM | Erica Holthausen

Stories are powerful. But they aren’t the only effective way to share your ideas with your audience. And if you are afraid that you are not a good storyteller or aren’t telling stories the right way, this emphasis on storytelling might be holding you back.

Yes, the power of stories is undeniable.

Stories bring data, facts, and figures to life by giving them context and meaning. They help us connect with our audience emotionally and intellectually, and that connection allows us to get our message across in a way that is not only memorable but persuasive. A good story can capture people’s hearts and change their minds.

But have we taken this emphasis on storytelling too far?

Stories can help, but they can also harm.

When we think about stories, especially within the context of business storytelling, the underlying assumption is that stories are good for our clients, good for our businesses, and good for the world.

But stories are not inherently good; they are merely tools.

A well-told story has the power to engulf our minds. It can help us see the world differently and open our minds to new ideas and possibilities.

When the message the story imparts is positive, a story can make that message clearer to the audience. It can help the reader understand the idea by giving it form and substance. Moreover, it can compel the reader to take action and implement the idea because they see how to do it and know what they expect if they do it well.

But what if that message is not true?

In an interview on HBR’s IdeaCast, the literary scholar and author Jonathan Gottschall raised concerns about the “storytelling industrial complex.” An entire industry has been built around teaching businesses how to tell more memorable and persuasive stories. Many talk about the potential of a good story to “go viral.”

It’s an apt metaphor.

Stories don’t care if the message you wish to spread is true or not. The job of a well-told story is simply to spread the message encapsulated within it. And because stories are so powerful, a good story can inspire good people to do horrible things.

Purdue Pharmaceuticals is the now-defunct manufacturer of OxyContin, one of the highly addictive painkillers at the center of the opioid overdose epidemic. Its marketing strategy was based on an uplifting story about helping those with chronic pain get back to the life they love. This story was bolstered by countless studies, underwritten by Purdue Pharmaceuticals, that claimed the drug was effective and non addictive.

What doctor wouldn’t want to help their patients live a fuller life? What salesperson wouldn’t take pride in helping people live without pain? When the only story you hear is one where you are the hero, it’s hard not to get excited.

Stories are tools, and like all tools, they can be used to help or harm.

Not every article needs a story.

We know that stories are powerful tools, especially when you’re trying to share your message and capture the fleeting attention of your audience.

But many articles don’t need a story.

If you’ve ever looked for a recipe online, you’ve experienced the unnecessary story phenomenon.

All you want to do is make Mediterranean chicken for dinner. But to get to the recipe, you have to slog through a long, pointless story about the food blogger’s entire family, the time they spent in Greece as a college student, their son’s gluten allergy, and their super-picky daughter who, shockingly, loves this particular dish.

Sharing a story before sharing the recipe is not inherently wrong — so long as it is relevant. But many food blogs share pointless stories that are way too long in order to boost their SEO (search engine optimization).

Your reader’s time is worth more than yours.


If a story doesn’t serve your reader, if it doesn’t add real value, or worse, it detracts from the point you’re trying to make, delete it.

Stories aren’t the only way to illustrate your point.

As humans, we use storytelling to make sense of the world around us. And we’ve been telling stories for as long as we’ve had language.

We all know how to tell a story.

But today, there are countless books, articles, and businesses dedicated to the art of storytelling. You can read about the Hero’s Journey, developed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell, dive into Donald Miller’s StoryBrand framework, or check out the framework promoted by the good people at Pixar. And if none of those work for you, plenty more people can teach you how to tell a good story.

But the truth is, we’ve over complicated things.

And that has created a false story about our ability to tell a good story. The fear that we aren’t telling a story the right way and the belief that we are not natural storytellers stops us from sharing our ideas, experiences, and wisdom. And that’s a disservice to those with insights to share and those who wish to learn from those insights.

If telling a story feels intimidating, try reframing it. Focus on sharing illustrative examples, scripts, or case studies that help your reader understand the point you are making in your article. Write about the client you worked with who had the same challenge you’re addressing in the article. What were they struggling with? How did you help them? What was the result? And what can your reader learn from your client’s experience?

Debra Roberts, a conversation expert, regularly writes articles for Because she is teaching her readers how to initiate and navigate difficult conversations, she often shares a simple script or sample dialogue to demonstrate how a conversation can escalate into an argument and how to interrupt the pattern to keep the conversation from escalating. These practical examples give her readers a place to start when fear of saying the wrong thing keeps them from engaging in critical workplace discussions.

Whether you make your point through a story, illustrative example, script, or case study, keeping the reader in mind is essential. Only use these tools when they help your reader and make it easier to understand and implement your ideas. You are writing to serve your reader. Eliminate anything that doesn’t directly serve them — even if it’s a damn good story.

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Erica Holthausen is the founder of Catchline Communications and a strategic thought partner to consultants who wish to build their authority and increase their visibility by publishing articles in industry trade journals and business magazines like Harvard Business Review, Inc., and Entrepreneur. To learn how to raise your profile, register for Pitched to Published, a free monthly Q+A focused on writing, pitching, and publishing articles.

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