Is storytelling only a cunning trick?
One day I went to meet a mind reader. He could read that I did not believe anyone could read minds but the young Israeli, Lior Suchard, was known across the world for his paranormal powers. In 2011, former US president Bill Clinton was in the audience and Suchard asked Clinton to think of a two-digit number, which Suchard then guessed correctly as “61”, which has to be the most useless thought to extract from Clinton. But Suchard is often very impressive. In fact, Clinton, he said, wanted him to be deployed against Iran to steal the thoughts of Iranians.
When I first saw Suchard, in 2013, he was conducting a “corporate workshop” in Gurugram. Many of the participants were managers from Nokia, which had paid over Rs16,000 per mind to listen to Suchard. It is not a price a corporation would pay its executives to attend a magic show in the middle of a weekday but then the story Suchard had spun around himself was that he had mental powers that most people did not possess. He could also bend spoons with his mind, he said (so can I, as several little children would attest).
I asked Suchard, “What is the most important thing you know about people?”
“They want to believe,” he said.
Everybody tells stories. Only some who do are called storytellers. In fact, the people who are paid the most for their stories are probably not known as storytellers at all, just as the most successful magicians are not known as magicians. All famous people are famous stories themselves. Apart from religion, culture and diets, most products and product lines, and many industries too, are largely creations of stories. There are origin stories of billionaires—that exact but fictitious moment when an insight struck; there are totally false stories; half-truth stories; white-lie stories; and cute stories about the flaws of brilliant people.
There is a common perception that stories are tricks, or they contain tricks. Life is mostly banal, reality mostly boring, and because the only objective of a story is to be interesting, the world accepts that stories have to be somewhat charlatan to succeed. Not just advertisers and politicians, but others, like businessmen, psychologists, popular scientists and activists, too feel it is important to trick, lie or exaggerate or not tell the whole truth to achieve an influential story. That white toothpaste makes teeth whiter; that fat is worse than sugar; that there is such a thing as a black hole; that machines will take over the world, are all very successful stories of modern times that exploit powerful human emotions or ignorance.
This form of storytelling shares its principles with the timeless rules of telling a pulp fiction or a commercially viable story, chiefly these: “Give people want they want”; “Promote popular beliefs and never challenge them”; and “Know your audience so that you can pander to them”.
But there is an entirely different form of storytelling, a very difficult kind of craft. It is what is widely known as literature or art. Nobody can define art but most people would agree that there is an exalted place for integrity in it. There is an expectation of the world that in literature the storyteller may fabricate a story while still saying only what he or she truly means to say. This may not always be true. Some literary novels, for instance, are not even stories in the first place: They are banality couched as anthropology. And they can be dishonest too. The novelist Marlon James said, soon after he won the Man Booker Prize in 2015, that authors of colour tend to “pander to white women” as the rewards for such pandering are immense. There might be some fake writers but there can be no doubt that integrity is sacred in artistic storytelling. Despite that, when taken at its peak, art is thrilling and transformative in a way pulp cannot match.
Can corporations and other major storytellers derive powerful techniques of storytelling from art?
Robert McKee, a popular American tutor of storytelling who also trains business executives to tell stories about their companies and brands, said in an interview to the Harvard Business Review that a story is, among other things, a set of answers to the questions the storyteller has set out to solve. “Finally,” he says, a good storyteller, “leans back from the design of events he or she has created and asks, ‘Do I believe this? Is it neither an exaggeration nor a soft-soaping of the struggle? Is this an honest telling, though heavens may fall?’”
Some of the most successful corporate stories today are much closer to the principles of artistic storytelling than to Dan Brown. The legend of Steve Jobs, for instance, is an account of his fierce independence and his war against majoritarian ideas. Many of his crucial characteristics as an entrepreneur were closer to those of an artist. His faith in his own instinct, for instance, and his contempt for market surveys. Jobs also showed that it is possible to have a high regard for the world—that people will appreciate an uncompromising work of art—and still succeed. He also used the most unsung artistic talent—the power of conjecture. He did not seek opinions from the world because it does not always know what it wants. He demonstrated that the autocracy of artistic creators can conjure up an object that can sell in millions, and that the Apple way can coexist with the Samsung way of doing things, which worships the democracy of market surveys.
A few days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a talk to students in his country, said the nation that becomes the leader in Artificial Intelligence “will become the ruler of the world”. Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk tweeted his response: “It begins”. Coming from Musk, this was an effective but deeply felt dramatic device as he tries hard to push his idea that the world should be wary of Artificial Intelligence, and about the stupidity of smart machines. Musk is a storyteller in the mould of Steve Jobs, who knows the power of a story but is unafraid of discarding artifice and telling his story the way he wants to.
To tell a powerful story, we need to believe in our own stories.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of the forthcoming Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous