Beware “Story Telling” and “Compelling Personal Narratives”

The headlines now:

“Blood, Fraud and Money Led to Theranos CEO’s Fall From Grace,” Bloomberg March 14, 2018.

“The Spectacular Downfall of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos Is the Best Startup Cautionary Tale in Years,” Inc. March 20, 2018.

“Fresh blood: why everyone fell for Theranos,” The Financial Times March 19, 2018.

“Theranos and Silicon Valley’s ‘Fake It Till You Make It’ Culture,” Wired Magazine March 14, 2018.

The headlines then:

“This Woman Invented a Way to Run 30 Lab Tests on Only One Drop of Blood,” Wired Magazine February 18, 2014.

“Blood, Simpler: One woman’s drive to upend medical testing,” New Yorker Magazine December 15, 2014.

“Elizabeth Holmes: One of the Top 100 Most Influential People,” Time Magazine April 15, 2015.

For me the fascinating thing about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos is not so much the story of fraud — as important as that is — but the idea of “story telling.”

The TED Talk trope — polished speaker who weaves a seductive narrative, often with cool props or visuals — is a modern version of the ages-old role of the story-teller. We are told by communication, marketing and leadership gurus that we need to create a “personal brand”, that we need to tell stories that impart a “compelling narrative.”

That is not to say that “narratives,” “personal brands,” and “story telling” are inherently wrong, after all Holmes engaged in fraud. You can have a completely true and authentic personal narrative. But as Andrew Hill wrote in The Financial Times’ coverage of Holmes and Theranos:

Elizabeth Holmes tells a good story. So it is no surprise to find the founder of Theranos at the centre of one of the world’s oldest and best-known tales: genesis, hubris, crisis, nemesis.

Ms Holmes quit Stanford University to pursue her dream of finding a simple, cheap, and quick way to test and analyse blood samples. She fronted the campaign to promote the product and the company. She drew in high-profile investors such as Larry Ellison and Rupert Murdoch. But she plummeted from the pedestal she had built for herself after it became clear Theranos’s product did not live up to her grandiloquent promises.

Last week, the US regulator charged Ms Holmes, the company and its former president with “massive fraud”.

The filmic quality of the Theranos story is unmistakable. Indeed, Jennifer Lawrence is standing by to play Ms Holmes in Bad Blood, the final scenes of which the Securities and Exchange Commission just drafted.

But Ms Holmes’s narrative is really a remake of previous movies, in which a lone leader, whose fame becomes bound up with the success of his or her business, takes the spotlight.

After decades of male dominance on the newsstand, Ms Holmes made an irresistible cover story. She was the bright young upstart disrupting an ugly oligopoly of laboratories that were allegedly blocking US citizens’ quest to find out about their own health. This tale — which she told repeatedly at conferences, on television, and in press interviews — was one many people, journalists included, wanted to believe.

To a degree, she was only following the template for marketing success. “The well-told story erases scepticism by wrapping [its] meaning inside an emotion,” points out Robert McKee, superstar lecturer on the art of the story in filmmaking, in Storynomics, a new book about how to use storytelling skills in a “post-advertising world”.

There’s the saying, often attributed to Mark Twain:

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Transparency. Process. Governance. These concepts do not often make for great “story telling” but I suggest that although the “sizzle” is useful, the quality of the steak is more important.