Storytelling still matters in a high-tech world

One of the biggest challenges I face as an instructor in professional writing at Santa Clara University is getting my students—mostly senior English majors who will soon be out on the job hunt in a battered economy—interested in business writing. This is particularly frustrating for me because, after 30 years as a business journalist and author, I’m currently also the co-founder and vice-chairman of a high-tech startup company that develops software platforms for mobile consumer health monitoring.

I believe storytelling will be the most important, differentiating business skill of the 21st century.

I watch my students, as I show them how to write a press release or edit ad copy, dutifully listen and take careful notes. But there’s no excitement in their eyes. That excitement only shows up later in the course when I talk about screenplays, non-fiction books, and novels. They love when I tell them about my old public television series and my interviews with legends like Allen Ginsberg—and are then disappointed when I tell them we talked about agents and stock portfolios during breaks in the shooting. That just doesn’t fit the fantasy: undergraduates and wannabe writers imagine the work as a calling, a dialogue with the Muse; real writers see their work as a craft, akin to bricklaying, albeit in a warmer place, but usually for less pay.

Yet, despite all of those dreams (and often the despair of their parents), within a year after graduation I inevitably get emails from these same students telling me that they are now working for a corporation in its marketing department, or for an advertising agency, or handling the PR at a nonprofit … and I know that they dug through their notes from my class. They are happy and challenged in their work, making good money, and building professional lives.

I’m thrilled. Sure, it’d be nice to teach some future great novelist. But this world doesn’t really need a greater flow of new novels. What it does need is storytellers. Millions of them. And it needs them quickly.

The networked, fast-moving, and protean culture of the 21st century needs people who can take complex subjects and turn them into cogent, compelling, and well-written stories. I’ve learned this from my own career, my current daily executive responsibilities, and my contacts in industry, government and the nonprofit world.

Indeed, I’m increasingly convinced that a great storyteller is even more important to an institution than a great code-writer, an accomplished research scientist, and maybe even a talented CEO. That’s true in the early days of a modern enterprise, when a company is trying to convince employees, investors, and partners to believe in a product or service that doesn’t yet exist. It’s also true in later years, when a mature company needs a compelling story to maintain the loyalty of customers and employees, and to differentiate itself from competitors.

I’ve seen this vividly in my own career over the last couple of years. My startup team is composed of industry veterans, men and women who have years of experience preparing spreadsheets, market analysis, budgeting and product specifications. Yet, as we presented all of these slides to potential angel investors and corporate partners, it was obvious that our vision— the factor that makes people write checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money—wasn’t getting through.

So we started again. This time, we explained the vision for the company in the form of a case study, a short story about a woman whom we rendered true to life (even including a photograph), who suffers from some chronic illnesses. We detailed how our product improved her life. When we showed this version of the slideshow to the same investors and potential partners, they instantly got it. Some even referred to the character as if she was real—proving they not only understood our product, but also had internalized it. Suddenly there was a lot more interest in our company.

Will my company make it? As with all startups, the odds are wildly against us. But we’ve already come a lot further than we ever expected—and we did so by telling stories.

I believe storytelling will be the most important, differentiating business skill of the 21st century. And, with a few exceptions, it will be more influential, exciting, and rewarding than writing novels or screenplays. But do my writing students, raised on years of romantic movies and Romantic Literature professors, really believe that’s true? No, if you can trust the look on their faces when I start talking about press releases and ad copy.

But they will. And if they don’t, English departments will be rendered even more marginal, parents will be even more unhappy, and companies and foundations will add creative writing to their in-house employee training programs.

As for those who do decide to become storytellers at the service of commerce, government or humanity, they may well find—as I have—that they have a real chance of saving lives and making the world a better place.

Michael S. Malone is one of the world’s leading high-tech journalists. He is the author of nearly 20 books, and has hosted or produced four public television series. He is co-founder and vice-chairman of PatientKey Inc. His new novel of Silicon Valley is “Learning Curve” (BarkingRain, 2013).

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.