Why ‘once upon a time’ is still the story of our times

March 12, 2010 | Verbal communication, Writing

Most professionals seem to regard storytelling as a quaint relic of the past – something modern society and all its technological gadgetry has made outmoded and unnecessary.

It’s an easy conclusion to come to because we have drifted so far from the basic roots of human communication, which began with storytelling.

Then again, all one must do is run that conclusion against the reality that surrounds us to know it’s provably false. Let’s take a few examples.

Podcasting is a very modern technology. Do you know the most popular podcast on iTunes, the mother of podcast distribution sites? It’s This American Life. If you know anything about this wildly popular National Public Radio program and podcast, you know it is old-fashioned storytelling on a grand scale, augmented with sound effects, music clips and other modern affectations.

People are drawn to it en masse because it offers what is missing from so many American lives – meaning. Without a narrative that draws relationships between people and the things around them, life becomes vapid.

Ever wonder why the National Enquirer and magazines of its ilk are so popular and widely read? It isn’t that most readers think the information contained is true or accurate. Indeed, the ultra-sensational Weekly World News publishes bizarre tales of alien invasions and babies whose heads explode.

The truth is people don’t care that those stories are based on a modicum of truth or are complete fiction. What they want are good and interesting stories to read. If some publishers have decided not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, all the better.

Don Hewitt, the late creator and long-time producer of 60 Minutes, said his program has endured for more than 40 years based on a simple four-word formula that he used as a mantra with 60 Minutes reporting staff: “Tell me a story.” It worked and 60 Minutes became the first news program to be the year’s top rated TV program – and it accomplished the feat three times.

Hewitt was so committed to the magic and importance of storytelling he titled his autobiography, Tell Me a Story. Hewitt would say, “We don’t do stories about issues, we do stories about people swept up by the issues.” That’s as old as time, he said, and referred to The Bible and the wisdom of its storytelling.

“The people who wrote The Bible were smart enough to write stories about people,” Hewitt said.

That’s true of religious faiths the world over. Religion is the most powerful force in billions of people’s lives, and those religions are based on parables, allegories, metaphors and all forms of storytelling. It isn’t a stretch to say the world’s religions are, at heart, a giant compilation of stories about mankind and its relationship to a Higher Power.

It’s apparent that storytelling is innate to the human system and is active long before religion takes hold of us. The first thing any child requests on a regular basis – other than nutrition – are bedtime (and daytime) stories.

That carries on right into adulthood. Workplaces and friendship circles are riven with gossip. We can’t resist telling stories and sometimes spicing them with wild speculation and embellishments. Even outright falsehoods are common. Some of us tell real whoppers.

When we reach old age we’re filled with a lifetime of stories and relish sharing them with anyone and everyone willing to listen.

As screenwriting legend Robert McKee wrote in his award-winning book Story, “A story well told gives us the very thing we rarely get from life, meaningful emotional experience.”