Just Another “Story” Book

The latest “story” book that I’ve read is Carmine Gallo’s newly-released The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch on and Others Don’t. Gallo, like Richard McKee and Richard Krevolin, both of whom I’ve written about lately, uses the generic noun “story” – not preceded by an article – as a short form for the gerund “story-telling.”

Carmine Gallo is a media trainer who focuses on business communications, especially presentation skills, and writes inspirational business books. He has written three about Steve Jobs and Apple, a book about presentation skills based on TED Talks, and now this book about story.

Gallo’s subtitle refers to “ideas that catch on and others [that] don’t” but he writes exclusively about ideas that catch on. His book is organized around stories about incredibly successful people to such an extent that he comes across as the “story-teller to the stars.”

Like Richard Krevolin, Gallo confines himself to heroic stories of successful struggle. “Every story – even the stories we tell ourselves – requires a hero, a struggle, and a happy ending” (p. 147). The tragic fable is not in his narrative universe. Indeed he quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s aphorism “show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy” to mean that heroes overcome adversity. A second interpretation, probably closer to that of the characters Fitzgerald created and the life he lived, is that heroic lives often end in tragedy.

Gallo’s chapters all involve stories of the lives of famous people who have overcome adversity (many rags-to-riches stories) and who are skillful story-tellers: Steve Jobs, Malala, Tony Robbins, Sting, Oprah, Sara Blakely (Spanx), Richard Branson, Pete Frates (ice bucket challenge). The stories are meant to be uplifting and to imply that story-telling ability was the secret of their success. The skeptic in me asks whether story-telling savvy was the only secret to their success (a necessary but not sufficient condition) or whether there are other people who have achieved great success without being master story-tellers (neither necessary nor sufficient). Looking to the technology sector, I haven’t heard many biographers claim that master story-telling had much to do with the achievements of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, or Larry Page.

Three things irritate me about Gallo’s mode of presentation.

First, his chapters invariably end with inspirational exhortations like “A good story can help explain an idea. A great story educates, inspires, and ultimately fires up our collective imagination. Tell great ones.” (p. 86). There is only so much inspiration this reader can take.

Second, while some of Gallo’s leadership stories are based on his own primary research, others are based on secondary research adapted to his message. For example, he retells the story of Churchill leading the war cabinet to resist Germany’s peace feelers over Lord Halifax’s objections but mangles it badly, even though the source he consulted – Boris Johnson’s book about Churchill – got it right.

Third, Gallo drops – as non sequiturs in the midst of any given chapter – references to the neurological research on how people respond to narrative. The reference I found most amusing was to the NSS discovery that neural coupling “only occurred when the speaker was telling a story to the listener in a language familiar to the listener. For example, when a speaker told the story in Russian to non-Russian speakers, the coupling did not take place” – a conclusion deserving of an ig-Nobel prize. These references were done to buttress his argument with the patina of academic respectability. A better approach would have been to summarize the literature at the start of the book.

Despite all I’ve written to this point, I will acknowledge that Gallo has some good suggestions about how to tell a story effectively, in particular by linking it to one’s personal story. These suggestions can be found in an appendix entitled “the story-teller’s secret” (pp. 235-243). The appendix is good value, and it’s too bad that Gallo didn’t expand them into an article. But books are more profitable than articles. So to get to the suggestions, Gallo needs to march us from Westminster to Silicon Valley and to the TED podium. This reader’s secret: start at the back.

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