How the Best Storytellers Win

How to master the craft of storytelling.

The old saying, popularized by the movie Field of Dreams (1989), said, "If you build it, they will come." The new-economy version says, "If you dream it, it will happen." Storytellers are in the fantasy business. The best of them, including Douglas Adams, use their craft to see farther, dream bigger, and engage more people. In other words, they're a perfect match for an economy in which the game is evolving, the rules aren't clear, and the competition is elusive. Here are the lessons you need to master their art.

1. Storytellers don't bother with the distinction between dreams and reality.

They are always dreaming, always casting the practical in terms of the heroic. They imagine themselves as heroes.

2. Storytellers don't draw intellectual boundaries.

Everything is useful: Biology teaches process. Mythology helps us understand development. Don't separate the business side from the creative side.

3. Storytellers play with time and space.

They imagine that rules don't apply to them. Where others see obstacles, they see possibilities. Adams imagines his life unfolding in other galaxies, where anything is possible. When he doesn't know what to do about a business problem, he tells a science-fiction story about it.

4. Storytellers know how to find characters to work with.

They look for people who will stretch their imaginative capacities. David Ogilvy once told a group of directors at a board meeting, "If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants."

5. Storytellers respect history.

That's how they maintain their sanity - and locate themselves in time and space. History repeats itself, so storytellers see their future embedded in tales of the past. Adams, for example, studies film to predict parallel developments in computer technology. The Internet, Adams says, is "like the film business in 1910, when everything was so new that every new idea was also a great idea." By that date, moving-image technology, 35-mm film, color photography, and sound amplified to an auditorium had made film a mass-market phenomenon. The Web, says Adams, is at a similar point in its development.

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