Storytelling: Getting attention; playing the role; collaboration

This post concerns three key features or elements of storytelling.

At a previous post, I have noted some insights that have occurred to me regarding storytelling.

Some subsequent posts are entitled:

CBC The Current podcast: We are natural storytelling machines, not statisticians – The Undoing Project (2017)

The elements of storytelling include (4) backstaging and (5) re-inhabitation of buildings and landscapes through narrative

Define storytelling however you like

I am a student of storytelling, I am a beginner and always will be.

You can define storytelling however you like. Storytelling occurs everywhere and at all times. You can speak of digital storytelling and in the process define it however you like.

You can speak of oral storytelling – as occurs in person-to-person contexts, where people are in the physical presence of each other – or social media storytelling, where people are sitting in front of screens. Or you can speak of the storytelling that occurs where a person writes a book that is subsequently published, and that people read. Storytelling is a key element in media relations and public relations, however the latter modes of communication may be defined.

As a writer, listener, reader, viewer, and/or as a communicator in any format or circumstance, each of us is a key player in storytelling.

We are talking about how people perform when they communicate, whatever their purposes and goals (for good or ill) may be. Storytelling is as readily a tool of practitioners of democracy, however democracy is defined, as it is a tool of demagogues and dictators.

We are dealing, among other things, with how the mind works, how we construct meaning, how we make sense of things, and with how we use language to talk about, and share information about, our respective stories.

We are dealing, as well, with the role of appearances in the mobilization of resources, with the nature of consciousness, the definition of reality, and with how we go about distinguishing between reality and unreality.

Stories are concerned with power, and with the wielding of it. Stories and labels lead to behaviours; stories and labels are, in particular circumstances, matters of life and death.

The Struggle for Tibet (2009)

In a previous post, I have outlined the introduction to The Struggle for Tibet (2009). The book is focused on the views and experiences of people currently living inside Tibet.

The Dragon in the Land of Snows (1999), which focuses on the history of Tibet since 1947, is a significant achievement. The introduction to The Struggle for Tibet (2009) outlines the steps that led to the writing of the book. I am highly impressed with the 1999 study and am pleased I recently came across it.

I have also been reading the first part of Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (2016).

Below I will add some notes, based on passages I have read so far, from the latter book.

1. Getting attention

The story has to take hold of, and hold onto, the attention of the audience. That is to say, you need a hook. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (2016) speaks of hooks as they apply to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Bavaria in the 1920s. There are many ways to study Hitler; the approach Volker Ullrich has adopted makes sense to me.

Another writer, whose approach regarding the rise and fall of Hitler also makes sense to me, is Richard. J. Evans. I have discussed his work in a post entitled Narrative helps us understand Germany in the 1930s (Richard J. Evans, 2003).

Click here for a list of books by Richard. J. Evans >

Hitler got attention starting in Bavaria in the 1920s because he spoke well. He had a talent for rhetoric and chose themes that resonated with his audiences. As befits a demagogue, his narratives, which strongly commanded attention in the beerhalls of Munich, were the opposite of an evidence-based approach to storytelling. Employing religious imagery, he projected messianic expectations. The demise of German currency through hyperinflation and decay of fundamental social values (p. 133) helped to advance Hitler’s narrative, in his beerhall speeches in those years.

2. Playing the role

By way of an update to the post you are now reading, the image is from a tweet by Laura Schneider ‏@alauraschneider who notes: "History shows that protests alone are not enough. In 1932, 100,000 people in Berlin demonstrated against the Nazis. @Nein_zur_AFD." Laura Schneider is a "Journalist. Working in international media development at Deutsche Welle Akademie. Formerly Spiegel Online, UNESCO. PhD on global press freedom."

By way of an update to the post you are now reading, the image is from a tweet by Laura Schneider @alauraschneider who notes: “History shows that protests alone are not enough. In 1932, 100,000 people in Berlin demonstrated against the Nazis. @Nein_zur_AFD.” Laura Schneider is a “Journalist. Working in international media development at Deutsche Welle Akademie. Formerly Spiegel Online, UNESCO. PhD on global press freedom.” Click on image to enlarge it.

The storyteller who plays the role will likely connect with the audience. In Hitler (2016) Volker Ullrich notes that, as well as being a skilled rhetorician, Hitler was a skilled actor. He knew which part to play, for which audience, depending upon the circumstance. As Ullrich outlines (p. 123), in Munich in the 1920s, Hitler learned to play changing roles: his second greatest talent after his rhetorical skills, the historian notes, was his acting ability. In this context, Ullrich adds (p. 124), Hitler demonstrated a cunning mastery of the art of disguise.

Of relevance, regarding the topic at hand, is a  Feb. 14, 2017 London School of Economics article entitled: “Book Review: Performing Politics: Media Interviews, Debates and Press Conferences by Geoffrey Craig.”

3. Collaboration; coordination; working together (occasionally, in the sense of colluding)

Putting together a good story typically takes a lot of work, and involves a team effort.

Commentary about storytelling: Columbia Journalism Review and Deutsche Welle (DW) articles

A Jan. 19, 2017 Columbia Journalism Review article is entitled: “The coming storm for journalism under Trump.”

An excerpt reads:

This is central to the communications strategy of the man taking power Friday [Jan. 20, 2017]: Whereas all modern presidents have spun information – even lied – the reality TV star actively obstructs a fact-based public debate like no other before him. Whereas all have attempted to take their messages directly to supporters, Trump has a unique gift for using tools that do so almost instantaneously. Whereas all have sought to limit press access to suit their political ends, Trump’s relationship with the truth has called the very value of access into question. And whereas all have railed against the press in the face of negative coverage, Trump has portrayed the media as a political foil he’s actively trying to defeat.

Decades-long trends in media and politics have made this moment particularly ripe for a figure like Trump – and particularly precarious for the journalists covering him. Even the most prestigious media companies face an uncertain financial future, and the atrophy of local outlets has diminished coverage of the very regions that comprise the base of Trump’s support. The media’s fragmentation, competitiveness, and increasing partisanship have sapped it of much of the collective political power it held during Watergate. Add in a hyperpolarized environment in Washington, on the internet, and across the country, and the Trump Administration may usher in one of the most challenging environments for the Washington press corps over the past century.


A Sept. 30, 2016 Deutsche Welle (DW) article is entitled: “Trump subtweet helps make Hitler biography a US hit.”

The sub-head reads: “A 1,000-page German biography of Hitler has become a US bestseller after a review implied parallels with Donald Trump. The book’s translator, Jefferson Chase, says there are numerous points of comparison.”

A photo caption accompanying the article notes that “Hitler was also a media star in his day.”

An excerpt reads:

Ullrich – the political editor of the highly respected weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” for almost 20 years and the author of eight major historical books, including studies of Bismarck and Napoleon in addition to Hitler – seems a bit taken aback at suddenly being dragged into the US election.

“The success of the first volume of my Hitler book surprised me, and it definitely seems connected with the New York Times review,” Ullrich wrote me. “Actually it’s not a review – much more the reviewer has tried to insinuate affinities between Trump and Hitler with an (admittedly clever) collection of quotations, although without ever explicitly naming Trump.”

Although he sees some points of comparison between the two figures, he cautions against equating them.

“When I wrote my book between 2009 and 2013, there was no talk of Trump running for president so there was no way I could have him in mind at all,” Ullrich pointed out. “I think comparing Trump with Hitler is inappropriate because it dangerously underestimates the latter. In toto, Trump probably doesn’t represent the sort of threat to world civilization Hitler once did.”

Ever the scholar, Ullrich doesn’t want to go into detail on a topic he has not himself thoroughly researched. But this is not the first time, nor is it likely to be the last, that parallels are drawn between the Donald and the Führer.





Role of biography

Among the topics of relevance is the role of biography in political life and in world history.

I have discussed situations, where solid biographical details may nt be available, at a subsequent post entitled:

Mr. Putin (2015) illustrates that story management is possible even in the absence of evidence-based biographical details

A key point in the above-noted post is that, if you have solid evidence regarding the context of a person’s life and good knowledge of the broad outlines of a person’s formative experiences, you can get a clear sense of what the person is about – even in the absence of verifiable biographical details. That is a significant point; I am very pleased that I’ve had the opportunity to read the book (Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2015)) that the post refers to.Blitzed (2016)



Yale Climate Connections & Yale Climate Program

A Jan. 17, 2017 Yale Climate Connections article is entitled: “Two Top TV Mets Address Climate Change: A challenge and a response on TV weathercasters’ ‘responsibility’ to address climate change science … and background to help them do so.”

There is a typo in one paragraph in the above-noted article: “Several other periodic ocean circulations are not as less well-known than El Niño or La Niña. ” I assume what may have been meant was: “Several other periodic ocean circulations are less well-known than El Niño or La Niña.”

The typo aside, the above-noted link includes an overview of climate change that is evidence based. It’s a beautifully written piece. The Yale Climate Program (see below) focuses on ways to translate scientific knowledge about climate change into stories that the wider public can follow. I strongly support such a form of storytelling.

Yale Climate Connections @CC_Yale : “Yale Climate Connections is a multimedia service providing daily broadcast radio programming and original reporting, commentary, and analysis on climate change.”

Also of note is the Yale Climate Program @YaleClimateComm : “We conduct research on public climate change knowledge, attitudes, policy support & behavior. Posted events are not endorsements.”

Canadian History Hall Storytelling: The Human Experience

A Dec. 1, 2016 Canadian Museum of History article is entitled: “Canadian History Hall Storytelling: The Human Experience.”

The opening paragraph reads:

As the Canadian History Hall team began its task of creating an exhibition spanning 15,000 years, we looked closely at how we could tell stories about the people of the past in ways that would connect with our visitors. Our goal was to go beyond the well-documented lives of leaders and elites to explore the lives of ordinary men, women and children. Further impetus to do this came from a variety of sources, including the public engagement exercise that we undertook in 2012–2013, and from feedback received from the Canadian History Hall advisory committees encompassing academics and community representatives.


The above-noted article brings to mind a book entitled: Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display (2015)

A University of San Francisco blog post regarding the book is entitled: “artifacts and allegiances: how museums put the nation and the world on display.”

Click here for previous posts about museums >

Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016)

Fiction – whether fiction expressed at a news conference, fiction expressed as public relations, fiction as expressed through music, or fiction expressed as literature as in a novel – can have a powerful impact.

Two works of relevance, with regard to these topics, are  The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (1999). and Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016).

Both texts (non-fiction and fiction, respectively) make for powerful and compelling reading.

A blurb for Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) reads:

An extraordinary novel set in China before, during and after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 – the breakout book we’ve been waiting for from a bestselling, First Novel Award winner. Madeleine Thien’s new novel is breathtaking in scope and ambition even as it is hauntingly intimate. With the ease and skill of a master storyteller, Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations – those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century.

With exquisite writing sharpened by a surprising vein of wit and sly humour, Thien has crafted unforgettable characters who are by turns flinty and headstrong, dreamy and tender, foolish and wise. At the centre of this epic tale, as capacious and mysterious as life itself, are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow’s ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer.

Here, too, is Kai’s daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story. With maturity and sophistication, humour and beauty, a huge heart and impressive understanding, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once beautifully intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of daily life inside China, yet transcendent in its universality.


Additional links

A Nov. 7, 2016 Los Angeles Review of Books article is entitled: “The Supermanagerial Reich.”

An excerpt reads:

The resulting market concentration, the decrease of small businesses and the growth of monopolies and cartels in Nazi Germany are well documented. It’s no surprise that supermanagerial governance would go hand in hand with the consolidation of large industrial and financial interests, as the value it provides is enhanced when sectors and market power are concentrated. This is another interesting parallel between the Nazi era and our own.

Today we find that antitrust and intellectual property laws have favored the concentration of market power in a handful of companies in key sectors such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, media and entertainment, not to mention the financial sector. And we find that unsurprisingly, today’s supermanagers thrive, in particular, in large, profitable firms.

A recent study finds that during the period 1978–2012, a large share (two thirds) of wage earnings inequality was driven not just by the deepening of pay differentials (between those at the very top and the rest of workers) throughout all firms, but also by the emergence of higher-paying large, profitable firms.


A Jan. 23, 2017 Bloomberg View article is entitled: “Why Trump’s Staff Is Lying.”


On the topic of populism, a Feb. 3, 2017 article is entitled: “14 Versions Of Trump’s Presidency, From #MAGA To Impeachment.”

A recent study by Pankaj Mishra is entitled: Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017).


Update: Public relations

Public relations professionals play a key role in media-based and other forms of storytelling. Their work relates to the concept of role play as an element of storytelling. The role is distinct from that of the media reporter, op-ed opinion writer, and editorial writer/commentator.

With regard to the unique role of public relations, A Feb. 9, 2017 Columbia Journalism Review (@CJR on Twitter) article is entitled: “PR flacks may be the media’s secret weapon against Trump.”

A Feb. 17, 2017 Columbia Journalism Review article is entitled: “What does Trump have in common with Hugo Chavez? A media strategy.”

Update: Elements of storytelling

A June 3, 2016 Pond5 article is entitled: “Storytelling 101: The 6 Elements of Every Complete Narrative.”

The article lists:

  1. Setting
  2. Characters
  3. Plot
  4. Conflict
  5. Theme
  6. Narrative Arc

Update: Journalism by non-journalist authors

A March 11, 2017 Toronto Star article is entitled: “Museums as newsrooms, university profs as journalists: A look at how museums could be a source of trusted civic information, as well as the roles of universities and ordinary people as newsrooms shrink.”

Lies have an entertainment value; entertainment in turn has economic value

A March 27, 2017 Atlantic article is entitled: “How Right-Wing Media Saved Obamacare: Years of misleading coverage left viewers so misinformed that many were shocked when confronted with the actual costs of repeal.”

Peel Regional Police and the Story of Mississauga

The following topic is of relevance with regard to what will be features as integral to the Story of Mississauga: An April 22, 2017 Toronto Star article is entitled: “Peel police discriminated against decorated officer based on race, rights tribunal rules: Peel police discriminated against a South Asian officer and devalued the South Asian community, a human rights tribunal has ruled.”

Additional updates

A May 18, 2017 Columbia Journalism Review article is entitled: “Remembering history won’t save us from Donald Trump.”

A June 19, 2017 WBUR article is entitled: “Tackling The Challenge Of Museum Design In The 21st Century.”

A July 18, 2017 Politico article is entitled: “How the GOP Became the Party of Putin: Republicans have sold their souls to Russia. And Trump isn’t the only reason why.”

A May 8, 2018 New York Times article is entitled: “Why Are So Many Democracies Breaking Down?”

Richard Rorty

A July 2017 Los Angeles Review of Books article is entitled: “Conversational Philosophy: A Forum on Richard Rorty.”

The introduction reads:

AFTER DONALD J. TRUMP was elected president of the United States, the American philosopher Richard Rorty (1931–2007) returned to the pages of many of the major newspapers of the world as one of the few thinkers who had predicted the election of a “strongman” with Trump’s homophobic and racist features. The relevant passage can be found in the lectures Rorty delivered on the history of leftist thought in 20th-century America at Harvard University in 1997, and published as Achieving Our Country a year later. While reprints of this book were hitting several political philosophy best seller lists, Rorty’s Page-Barbour lectures — titled Philosophy as Poetry — were also released. If in Achieving Our Country, Rorty predicted the election of a right-wing populist, in the latter he stresses how valuable the imagination is for the future of philosophy, which is, in many ways, an imperiled discipline. Although these are not his most important books, they indicate that Rorty was a philosopher ahead of his time, a philosopher for the future.

The goal of this forum is not simply to remember Rorty 10 years after he passed away on the June 8, 2007, but also to continue the conversation which he urged all philosophers to pursue. I have invited Marianne Janack, María Pía Lara, Eduardo Mendieta, and Martin Woessner to cover specific aspects of Rorty’s thought, including feminism, social hope, and post-truth. Their concise contributions underscore the significance of Rorty’s writings for the 21st century. My introduction recalls important moments of the American thinker’s life as well as his outstanding contribution to continental philosophy.

— Santiago Zabala


3 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    In addition to the above-noted three features, storytelling is also about exploring the fact that things may not be as they seem. That is, what is the backstage reality, given that we initially know only the frontstage? How do we separate the fact from the fiction, the rhetoric from the reality? What clues are available, to help us on our way?

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A Feb. 5, 2017 Los Angeles Review of Books article is entitled: “Against Normalization: The Lesson of the ‘Munich Post.’ ”

    An excerpt reads:

    But after the election, things changed. Now Trump and his minions are in the driver’s seat, attempting to pose as respectable participants in American politics, when their views come out of a playbook written in German. Now is the time for a much closer inspection of the tactics and strategy that brought off this spectacular distortion of American values.

    What I want to suggest an actual comparison with Hitler that deserves thought. It’s what you might call the secret technique, a kind of rhetorical control that both Hitler and Trump used on their opponents, especially the media. And they’re not joking. If you’d received the threatening words and pictures I did during the campaign (one Tweet simply read “I gas Jews”), as did so many Jewish reporters and people of color, the sick bloodthirsty lust to terrify is unmistakably sincere. The playbook is Mein Kampf.


    A second excerpt reads:

    After the 1923 fiasco, Hitler served nine months of a five-year sentence for rebellion and pledged to stay out of politics. But his parliamentary party didn’t quit, and eventually Hitler had demonstrated enough neutral behavior (discounting the murders committed by the Nazi death squads not directly connected to him) that he was allowed to campaign again. Was it a mistake? Had he learned a lesson? As it turned out, Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at other times a sleeping serpent, at others yet a trustworthy statesman. The Weimar establishment didn’t know what to do, so they pretended this was normal. They “normalized” him.



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