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Stories kill

Can stories make us stupid?

“Tell stories” is what they teach you when you start a career in journalism or Public Relations. There are storytellers in many fields. People in sales and marketing tell stories all the time. Stories sell. Not only do we love stories. That’s why as children we were fascinated by fairy tales and why we read Stephen King novels. But we also need stories to find all the mysteries in life plausible. Stories make us believe.

Of course, there is also a downside to it. We use stories to sell complex ideas because they simplify complex realities. That also means stories leave out a lot of what could be important to us. And everybody knows that there are a lot of untrue stories out there many people believe as well. So can stories make us stupid? I recently came across a lecture by the great American economist and writer Tyler Cowen (video here and transcript here) in which he explains why he is suspicious of stories. As a filter, he says, they always follow the same pattern: “if you think in terms of stories, you’re telling yourself the same things over and over again.”

Many of the stories we tell others and ourselves are way too simple. Thus, they often lead us in the wrong direction. When Robert Shiller, another American economist, was recently asked why financial markets crash and why we never learn, his answer was: “stories”. He pointed to Greece and the European debt crisis as an example: “Greece just sounds awfully important, doesn’t it? It’s the ancient origin of our philosophy and science. It’s really not that important to the European Union, but it’s a story. I think that the European sovereign debt crisis is really an amplification of the Greek story. It all started there, and it didn’t have to have all these repercussions if it weren’t for the power of the story.”

We make many mistakes in our daily lives because of the stories we are being told and we tell ourselves are so powerful. For instance, you could believe in the story that in order to be successful you need a University degree. You might further believe in the story that the only way of becoming successful is to study law or business administration instead of philosophy. These stories might make you forget a lot about your true desires and talent. Eventually, stories kill. So what’s the alternative?

Telling stories is fundamentally human, as Tyler Cowen knows as well. And he actually has some good advice: just be a little messier. Life is more of a roller coaster ride than climbing a mountain. If stories sound too good and simple to be true, they probably are. Enjoy the stories you hear but ask yourself: what is the story no one has an incentive to tell? Then tell yourself that story as well. What can corporate communications learn? In that case, what is true for every human is also valid in PR. Look out for the chaos that often surrounds what you are talking about. Keep on telling stories! But also keep in mind that your story is almost never complete. Look further back and forward. See what you can add, and new opportunities might arise.

That’s my story for today.