The Greatest Story Forever Told

By Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA, Principal

It’s been many years since I transmutated my philosophy of design as interpretation into an exploration of narrative and then traced it to its roots in storytelling. “What is Exhibition Design?,” the book I co-authored, began with this quote: “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today,” and the book itself based its premise in the fact that what we all seek are the primal stories to which we anchor our conceptions of reality, as of values, rules of conduct, beliefs and interpersonal and societal relationships – not to mention the questions of where we come from and where we go after we’re gone. As I proposed in subsequent papers and articles on narrative and representation in design, and as I backed up with the writings and teachings of philosophers like Jean Lyotard and psychologists like Jerome Bruner, because we frame our understanding of the world within the stories on which we are raised – both within our families and our broader cultures – the surest way to draw people into a designed experience is to create a story that will form the foundation and framework for that experience.


One of the papers I wrote along the way was called “Beyond Narrative:  Designing Epiphanies.” I began by bemoaning the ubiquitous application and exploitation of the trendy term ‘narrative’ and its use, mis-use and over-use to apply to everything from “breakfast cereal to toilet paper.” My main gripe was that in its often stretched-to-fit interpretation the word itself was being distorted and simplified to the point of meaninglessness, as when the Times suggested that the decline in the popularity of sports was due to a “failure of narrative.”


So, imagine my growing discontent at the treatment being given our poor friend ‘storytelling’ lately. I know, one might expect that I would be thrilled that what I (and many others far wiser and more erudite than me) have long recognized as a key determinant of, and strategy for clear, rich and meaningful communication is having its well-deserved day in the sun. But, like our crippled and disfigured colleague ‘narrative,’ ‘storytelling’ has been ambushed and is now being subjected to its own special kinds of torture. Witness, if you will, the article in this Saturday’s New York Times Business Section (yes, those are italics). The title, “Storytelling Your Way to a Better Job Or a Stronger Startup,” may tell the story well enough by itself. But the heart of the article goes on to offer a how-to on the effectiveness of using storytelling to sell oneself and/or one’s product or service by tapping into our hard-wired desire to be told stories. It is replete with bullet points on how to structure your story (beginning/ middle/ end), how to jazz up your PowerPoint, and how to cozy up to your prospective target by using personal stories to soften the “ask.” It suggests that storytelling can aid board members and employees in understanding the companies they serve. And it identifies the shiny new business opportunity, as exemplified in consultancies like Narrativ and other ‘story coaches,’ who charge hefty sums to help companies find their stories and learn how to tell them.


So what’s the problem? Maybe nothing. I often get grumpy when I think I uncovered some meaningful and mystical jewel only to find that in the meantime others have unearthed the same one and found a way to make money from it while I thought it was just a great epiphany to be harnessed for good (and it didn’t occur to me to make money from it!). And I’m sure that some (yes, italics again) of the impacts of the exploitation of ‘storytelling’ will be positive. Let’s just not forget that there are far more beneficial rewards to be had by utilizing this very human capacity for the communication of ideas and values in areas of life other than the marketplace. And let’s give it a break…in the coming year I hope not to see anything about the storytelling benefits of trans fats, white sugar, cigarettes, junk bonds or selfies, OK?