Audio Recording by George Hahn
I’m on a flight from London to LA, where I’ll kick off a six-city tour (then to San Diego, Seattle, Austin, NYC, and Miami). In each city, I’ll stand in front of several hundred people with a hundred-plus charts peering down from behind. Then I’ll tell stories. My favorite part is the Q&A, which is a real test of skills. Plus, people are, generally, wonderful. Most are (offline) super nice and ask a question that reveals something about themselves, and we all feel closer. One query I get often is “What class/skill would you suggest our kids take/learn to compete in the modern economy?” Or some-such. I think most expect me to say computer science, STEM courses, or some bullshit about the wonders of a liberal arts education that foments curiosity. But hands down, the skill I would grant my boys is singular: storytelling.
The arc of evolution bends toward good storytellers. Communities with larger proportions of skilled storytellers experience greater levels of cooperation, and … procreation. Their evolutionary fitness is buttressed, as storytelling translates to more efficient transmission of survival-relevant information. Storytellers themselves are more likely to receive acts of service from their peers — and among men, being skilled in storytelling increases attractiveness and perceived status to potential long-term mates. My dad used to tell me that men get turned on with their eyes, women with their ears. It turns out his theory is backed by science.
Narrative vs. Numbers
Data may be more truthful, but in the battle between narrative and numbers, most of the time humanity picks narrative. Among CEOs, 7 in 10 sometimes ignore data insights in favor of “trusting their gut.” More potent than statistics in cancer awareness campaigns are personal narratives — advertisers know this and have unleashed the power of stories to increase cancer screening rates.
Social change follows the narrative. The meatpacking industry famously registered structural upheaval not in response to data on worker conditions, but Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. Today, attitudes towards gay and trans people are softening in many communities thanks to personal stories in television and other media — and the right is weaponizing this, creating hysteria about a supposed plague of boys playing girls sports and using their bathrooms to harden those attitudes and whip up the base. Social media algorithms, at their core, connect bursts of media (scenes) into a story. But they’ve learned that the stories we can’t look away from are often those that validate our anxiety and depression, that confirm our suspicion that other people are awful.
Storytelling has flourished, becoming a large and profitable industry. In Hollywood, a disagreement between the storytellers and their corporate employers over how to divide those profits has taken late-night talk shows off the air, threatens the continuation of hundreds of television shows, and imperils swathes of the Southern California economy. Also, it’s producing some excellent picket signs. Like everything else, this is partly an AI story — one of the points of contention is how to manage AI’s role in writing. Video games have evolved from bouncing pixels off one another into a $250 billion industry dependent on stories that sprawl across dozens of games, and are pored over and loved by generations of players.
Companies are defined by their stories, which can shape their economic output. Public relations is a $100 billion-per-year industry, and growing. Amazon employs 1,900 in its PR and communications division. That’s almost double the number of journalists at the paper their boss owns. Across Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft there are now almost as many PR/comms employees as there are screenwriters in America. However, they don’t need to strike, as they’re paid a shit-ton. Sheryl Sandberg was paid $1.8 billion to tell stories of gender equality and personal loss to distract from the stories her algorithms were telling our teens.
Elon Musk built the ninth-most-valuable company in the world not because he knew anything about electric cars, but because he’s a master storyteller who inspired a team of world-class engineers to build a better one. I don’t like Musk, but I’d still rather have dinner with him than Mary Barra. The previous sentence is not true, but it fits my narrative.
I got my start building companies, telling stories. Later I became a professor, where the students pay $170,000 in tuition for me to deliver a three-hour lullaby. Note: My agent (NYU) takes a 97% commission. Now I tell stories on a stage in front of 150 to 15,000 people who pay between $100,000 to $250,000 to see if I can weave my observations about tech, society, economics, and fatherhood into a story. And my largest source of wealth creation has been pre-IPO stock, awarded in exchange for helping CEOs craft a story they can tell institutional investors. Like most skills, storytelling is an amalgam of nature and nurture.
My dad says he’s been married/divorced four times. It’s probably 5 or 6 — he’s that kind of guy. A strong jawline and mesmeric storytelling, wrapped in Glaswegian elocution. At any gathering, my father manages to draw a circle of people around him who listen to stories of his upbringing in Depression-era Scotland, peppered with jokes that are impossible not to laugh at. In ’70s California this meant my dad could not only think with his dick, but also listen to it. He left us when I was 8, and I resented him a great deal. Not so much for not being there for me — he tried. But for how callous he was to my mom. It was difficult to embrace someone when the most important person in my life (my mom) viewed him as her enemy.
What made it easier was recognizing that my ability to take my sons to the World Cup, and take care of the woman he left, comes (somewhat) from my dad being my dad. There’s no getting around it: I inherited some of his gift — and for the past 30 years I’ve made my living off of it. I also inherited a bunch of his shittier qualities, but that’s another post.
There are ways to get better. Some thoughts on learning to fly, and telling good stories.
Listen: Good communication starts with the message, which comes from knowledge and observation. In part, this means listening to others: read widely and ask questions. But more important: Listen to yourself. Cultivate an internal voice that tells you what’s flawed or missing in the popular discourse. People prefer a counter-narrative. Be the hunter who tracks straight to where the prey is actually hiding.
Evaluate: Stress-test your ideas against available data, either in conversation or by writing it out. Science rests on this process — the “scientific method” of developing a falsifiable hypothesis, then conducting experiments to prove or disprove it. By the time I give a talk on a corporate campus in Redmond or a cruise ship (next week: Summit at Sea), 10-plus people will have touched/listened to/fact-checked/designed the deck, often in groups. Most of the concepts we consider for this newsletter or my talks never see the light of day, exiled by data and other folks who make me seem (much) smarter than I am and save me from myself. Something I wish I’d recognized earlier: Greatness is in the agency of others.
Frame: This is where innovation melds with communication. You have an idea you understand and believe in, but how do you express it in a compelling manner? Try things out. I’ve had success with extended metaphors, personal anecdotes, and presenting information visually. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to embrace the personal. It comes easily, as I’m a narcissist. But also, people are looking for a connection, and a good way to connect with several hundred strangers at once (or with just one person) is to be vulnerable. Making people feel something bests any business insight. In a remote world swamped by a tsunami of digital information, the rare earth metal is humanity.
Be Fearless: The fear is real, and it can end the game before it starts. People say it’s fear of speaking. I think it’s more than this — it’s fear of rejection. The fear that someone will validate your insecurities and rebuff your advances, be it initiating a conversation or presenting an idea.
However, the willingness to subject yourself to rejection is like sleep: Without it, you can’t succeed. I believe there are two main sources for my courage to get onstage and say provocative things: My mother, who showed me she loved me every day of my childhood; and my atheism, knowing that my relationships with the people I love and who let me love them — they are the only things that really matter.
My 15-year-old son has mostly gone mute, as he’s decided everything and everyone is unfathomably uncool. I ask (demand) that he start a conversation when we’re together or at the dinner table. My 12-year-old is a terrorist at home, but painfully shy in public. I demand — and he hates this — that he speak to strangers when we’re out of the house. On Sunday we ventured to the Battersea Power Station mall, which was awesome, and I told him to speak to the guy staffing the help desk and shape our plan for attacking the mall. Not exactly a TED talk … give it time.
Deliver: Once you know what to say, say it. Embrace an economy of words. Ask yourself, “How can we say this visually?” Brevity makes things easier to understand and signals directionality and confidence. It demonstrates that you are actually saying something. Think of the last several emails you wrote. The length and formality of the email is inversely correlated to your comfort with that person. My presentations are often 150 slides long, but I (try to) circumnavigate tech and society in 60 minutes. I assume the listener knows a lot and likes me, and I like them … so we can get right to the point. We’re friends.
What I want most for my two sons is not that they become Nobel prize winners or members of Congress, but that they live rewarding lives full of meaningful relationships. And that they are good citizens. Most of that’s on them. Parents tell themselves a story that kids are blocks of clay we mold. Pro tip: They come to you not fully formed but in roughly their own shape. We’re not engineers, but shepherds. In our limited time as their shepherd, we can arm them with skills that increase their prospects for success. Learning math, going to college, landing a job — all powerful tools. But the weapon of mass attraction is the ability to communicate. I wish I’d figured this out earlier: Money, mates, and meaning are all moths to the flame of storytelling.
Life is so rich,
P.S. This week I discussed the loneliness epidemic with U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on the Prof G Pod. Listen here.
P.P.S. Bring your team to sprint with me in May. Request a demo of our team experience here, and I’ll see you in class.
Great content but so little humility.
Why does he need to act humble when by your own admission you’re coming to him to hear him talk – as are thousands of others? He’s earnt the right to be confident in his achievements and worth. He’s just being honest.
Scott, this hits home. Daunting, exciting and charged! I am a shark attack survivor, athlete, actor, father et al. I am learning how to package all of this into a story format…trauma is daunting to deal with at times…but through sharing we create space for healing both ourselves and others. I look forward to that dinner together one day;)
I enjoyed the article and support the hypothesis of story telling. But I respectfully submit that stories are most beneficial when they have something worthwhile to say. Thanks for sharing.
Did he say anything to the contrary? No.
Scott! Long-time listener of Pivot. Love it. I think you’re sometimes right/sometimes wrong but ALWAYS thoughtful & good humored.
I don’t know where to put this comment but figured this was easiest. In one of the latest pivots you talk with a lady who is in charge of DEI initiatives. She seemed charming and mostly very sensible. Your line of questioning was (mostly) appropriate – but I do think these debates always miss the data on natural preferences.
One of the most compelling in my view – is the gender divergence in day trading. To my knowledge, there are no serious gender specific barriers (apart from cultural pressures and a history that men do finance and women don’t) – aka the patriarchy can’t be blamed for not supporting women etc. But – and who knows how accurate the figures are – as many as 95% of day traders are men.
It is these sort of numbers I would love you to unpack with intelligent, likeable & well informed people like your guest
Great point Scott! I think this is a great way to think before presenting or telling a story. “I assume the listener knows a lot and likes me, and I like them … so we can get right to the point.”
One of your best, bar none. Appreciate your unique blend of ferocity and caring. That’s what I want most for my three children, too: meaningful relationships. And what better way to create these? To be courageous, to be vulnerable, to interact with the world F2F and understand for oneself.
Brilliant – thank you. Always thought provoking. Which I hope is what you intend. Keep going – please,
Why do you think so many of the best storytellers are selfish and greedy, and some downright evil?
“…a supposed plague of boys playing girls sports”. Prof G is a great writer, but just can’t resist throwing in a social warrior zing.
Calling a respectable person a “social warrior” diminishes nobody but yourself.
I will share and save this for life…
writes like an Angel, and this was a particularly lovely piece of writing about an essential human skill …. that fills an essential human need.
When it comes to communication, two things are particularly important to me:
1) Simple(e) (communication) is not easy. Simple is often the hardest.
2) It is a Christian sentence (so not so easy for an atheist), but there is so much truth in it in relation to communication: Love your neighbor as yourself. Or formulated as a condition: Only if you love yourself, you can you also love others.
A friend of mine from another lifetime literally wrote the book on storytelling – years ahead of the Prof discovering its power – Check out Annette’s prodigious work in this fieldhttps://annettesimmons.com/books/
When will you be in Seattle and where??
Your comment bot won’t accept my comment. It thinks I’ve already said it
For months I’ve wanted to write you and say that your “shareholder value” mantra was nothing but a baseless story. Now I don’t need to write anything. You’ve done it for me.
Since discovering you in Pivot podcast, I now religiously follow the podcast, and now subscribed to your newsletter. I am fascinated by the way you speak, so insightful and well versed. Since I ‘met’ you i have been working hard at becoming a better story teller. Its not only the way we speak but also what we share and the subtle art of perfecting the two in harmonious stories. The way to get better is to do it more, and its hard but its the way. Thanks for all you do, it has a profound impact on a lot of people!
what a wonderful post. this is a Prof G classic.
This gift of storytelling is likely what made my husband ( an 7th grade English teacher for 42 years) s success. Kids who are adults still remember a creature he called: amisare waswherebeen who landed in their yard from outer space . (Am Is Are. Was Where Been )- verbs of being. He had a whole story. I’ve met adults who still remember it!
@Paula, I want to hear the story that your husband told all these kids for 42 years. Please
I’d love to hear these stories too, and I’ll bet they could be made into a book with fun illustrations!
Insightful and true. I will also add that being a good storyteller requires an excellent memory and a way with words. The more articulate the better.
Loved your post, but indeed a great communicator and storyteller usually comes from being an analytical thinker, a well-read person, culturally aware, a good listener, and a great speaker. And yes, these are all soft skills you learn in a liberal arts education. So I disagree with you, a great education teaches both, hard and soft skills like those mentioned. It helps you draft a great story.
I am not sure you have to analytical!
trying to find information about prof g speaking in Seattle. When and where is it? open to the public? too late to get a ticket?
You are absolutely right! A good story teller will keep a potential customer interested, and be comfortable with buyin from him/her. The customer may not remember even a single major point you made, but will remember that it all made complete sense when he/she heard it.
AMEN: But the weapon of mass attraction is the ability to communicate.
Battersea Power Station mall is not cool to a Londoner. It’s naff. Rich people’s generic shopping mall aimed at overseas buyers of the generic apartments built around the power station.
How do I get tix to your event in Austin?
Love this! Particularly by the stat of 7 out of 10 “trust their gut”, I have always felt the product marketing teams that spin up “results and insights” is never as powerful as an authentic story. I’ve always found the hardest thing is in teaching people how to tell a story, I don’t necessarily believe in frameworks, and rather encourage and promote individuals to follow their own artistry and style with a few principles (relevance, proper tension, clear takeaway, etc)
100%… I tell everyone that, for all my advanced degrees (of which there are too many), the best training that I ever got in life was improv.
We’ve been crafting the art of storytelling for hundreds of thousands of years. Broad literacy is what, a few hundred at best? Most might argue fewer in terms of global percentages.
If you don’t like performing, I don’t care, go take and improv course ASAP. I can guarantee your life and that of those around you will be infinitely better for it. Remember, Improv to Improve!
Thanks Scott – an especially good one, I’m sharing out accordingly — including with a good friend who is doing amazing things helping others learn practical storytelling skills!
Thanks Scott. StoryTelling is absolutely an incredible skill. Gravitas, charisma are the icing on the cake! I am thinking that like many skills, it requires practice, trials and errors, and a genuine belief in the story itself…I found that some of the most effective storytellers all seem to have something in common: An indestructible “inner peace”. Perhaps that’s where kids should start to work on (I too, have 2 sons). Cold bath, travels and breathing meditations…Thoughts?
As a 4x startup founder it is clear that concise and human storytelling is everything. While I am not flying as much as you do, I have 2.5m air miles, so when I met my cofounder Dr Charles Krebs and he told me he had a solution for Jet Lag, I said “Charles where have you been all my life, and I from Missouri show me” he did and we started Uplift for Jet Lag, it’s a performance enhancer for travel and you know the problem. My gift for so many great insights. Thanks and Safe Travels.
Great one this week. I think you are missing a lot in AI and really need to focus there, but you have Kara to keep you up while you RTFM. Keep up the good work
Absolute gold 🥇
Prof G….the gangster-always hits it out of the park! I loved everything is the blog, especially the section on KIDS!
In the Story, Inc. paragraph, you included this sentence: “I don’t like Musk, but I’d still rather have dinner with him than Mary Barra.” Then you said the previous sentence was not true. What about it is not true…the part about Musk, the part of about Barra, or both?
That means most people would prefer to be in the casket at a funeral than would be OK with delivering the eulogy.
Hi Prof. G. – Just wanted to comment on “my atheism, knowing that my relationships with the people I love and who let me love them — they are the only things that really matter.” I really believe in God, and in fact give prayers of thanks probably every day, and I believe almost as you do: my relationships with the people I love are the most important thing. After that, the only other thing that matters is that I try to make the world a slightly better place, on a small, interaction-by-interaction level (in other words, that I try to be a good citizen). 🙂
Please keep telling great stories! That stat comparing Amazon’s PR staffing with the Washington Post’s journalism staffing was mind-blowing.
One of my favorite factoids is the fear of public speaking is GREATER than the fear of death. That means, if most people would prefer to be in the casket at a funeral than would want to be delivering a eulogy.
That means most people would prefer to be in the casket at a funeral than would want to be delivering a eulogy.
Great and very timely write up Scott, as I am currently struggling to formulate a story and was ready to give up and revert to dry facts.
Profound and true, I just saw Tony Robbins, who is a great story teller, because his stories take actions. I feel the best storytellers or one’s that action follows..”Ask not what America can do for you, but what can I do for America” and bam we are on the Moon, haha!
This is the best write-up I have ever come across on Storytelling. Powerful and full of wit.
I enjoyed this post so much that I’m sharing with my kids. Virtual dad advice – thanks!
Very good Prof! But of course telling the stories you want to tell. Not the stories others want you to tell. You need some ethics somewhere
Without a moral to the story, isn”t it all just propaganda?
Consider this latest work, “One Idea To Rule Them All: Reverse Engineering American Propaganda,” by Michelle Stiles.
Elon Musk is a hero. Thank God he’s defending our free speech.
You’re the best…….
PS. You might want to listen to my Video Podcast…….
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