Telling Stories

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In a recent Wall Street Journal article titled How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities, a supposedly “tech-savvy, empirical, ferociously competitive” Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur said:

“English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for. [With virtual products] you have to establish strategic partners, convince talented people to join your firm, explain your product to code writers and designers, and begin to market to prospective customers. And you have to do that without an actual product. How do you do that? You tell stories. That’s why I want English majors.”

My take: Great fodder for a newspaper article, but total nonsense. Not the part about telling stories, but about English majors.

Telling stories — at least the way the quintessential entrepreneur means it, not lying, fibbing, and telling tall tales — is what great leaders, managers, and salespeople do. And becoming a great leader, manager, or salesperson is hardly the domain of English majors.

I’ve worked with a lot of English majors over the last 15 years. They make great editors. Some of them might be great storytellers, but their academic training isn’t necessarily the source of that skill.


Mr. SiliconValley is failing to consider why telling stories are effective at establishing partnerships, convincing people of join your firm, explaining your product, and marketing to prospects. It’s because

Stories do a better job of making an emotional connection than numbers do. 

Please note that this is not a rational versus emotional thing. Emotions can be rational or irrational. Laughing at  commercials that show children starving in Africa is an irrational emotional response.   


There’s another thing that Mr. SiliconValley is missing here. What great leaders, managers, and salespeople do is not just tell stories, but get other people to tell stories to themselves

This is not a referral kind of thing. It’s an internal, inside-one’s-own head kind of thing. 

When an effective leader, manager, or salesperson tells an effective story, what happens is that listeners develop their own stories — about how they succeed by investing in the company, or buying the product, or by working at the company. 


There is absolutely nothing about English majors’ training that lead them to develop them skill, or even get them to realize why stories are important in this business context. 

So, Mr. SiliconValley, go ahead and hire English majors. I’m putting my money on the effective story tellers. 

Image via flickr

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