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.