Storytelling Is Suffering from Semantic Satiation

(figutarively speaking)

Let me tell you a story. In marketing and content creation the word ‘storytelling’ is used left, right and centre. Sure we all have stories to tell. Medium itself would cease to exist if there were no more stories to be told. We have collectively embarked on a trend that is storytelling. Brands do it, people do it, everyone is at it.

Repetition of a word over and over again can cause (temporary) loss of meaning. Meaning the word changes into a random collection of sounds. Semantic Satiation, as this phenomenon is officially called, is fascinating. I believe most of us have experienced semantic satiation first hand. If you have not, try reading ‘apple, apple, apple, apple, apple, apple, apple, apple’ out loud. Apple just stops making sense.

The same is happening to storytelling. I have heard and seen the word storytelling so many times that it has become an empty vessel. Now, when someone utters the word it just sounds like ______. I wonder how meaning can be put back into storytelling. As I look at it there are two ways: specifying what it means or avoiding the word completely (at least for now).

Storytelling in its Context

According to the online etymology dictionary the word originated in 1709. It does not take a genius to see that the word is made up out of the noun ‘story’ and a conjugation of the verb ‘tell’. Storytelling has been around for centuries. It is said that the practice is uniquely human and plays a crucial role in social bonding. A very basic and straight forward definition of storytelling would be that storytelling is the act of telling stories. Instead of defining it as an act, it can also be defined as an art. This is where a first distinction can be made: storytelling as an art form and storytelling as the act of telling a story.

I have my doubts that content creators consider the storytelling they do a form of art. For content creators and their employers storytelling serves a purpose; it is an instrument used to increase value. Put differently, the storytelling content creators practice needs to generate (measurable) results. Think of increased sales, higher click rates, page views and so on. As an art form I imagine the storytelling itself to be the prime objective.

Redefining Storytelling

Having listened to videographers, copywriters, illustrators and graphic designers talk about storytelling when teaching me how to become an epic content creator, I have noticed some distinctive features. Storytelling is:

  • Capturing and conveying a sentiment
  • Building emotional connections
  • Personal yet stylised
  • Making the ordinary special

Allow me to elaborate. The story that is turned into content is the sentiment of a certain brand, project or business. It is the vibe that people connect to. This means that stories focus on vibes rather than actual information. When people feel a certain emotional connection, they will more easily like, share, and buy. Factual information is harder to emotionally connect to than personal stories, beautiful images and people. This might be because facts rely on logic rather than emotional responsiveness. What this means is that factual information is translated into content that does generate an emotional response.

Even though everything is made more personal, it remains stylised. Somehow personal is good, but in a pretty form. I guess this means that storytelling requires finding a balance between getting personal, perhaps even showing some imperfection, and keeping within a certain attractive style. The ‘we’re only human’ sort of look and feel, but with a filter. Being only human also means that ordinary things are part of life.

There is beauty in the ordinary. I think reality TV was built on making the ordinary special. Ordinary things are easy to relate to. In other words, showing something ordinary adds to that personal touch. I can imagine that there is a certain threshold. If things are too ordinary no one’s interested. Again, a certain balance has to be established between the ordinary and extraordinary. In practical terms, something ordinary can be shown in a creative and beautified way and something extraordinary can be approached from a more common perspective. I do not know how, but think those are two ways to find that balance, always keeping in mind the overall look and the feel it bring about.

Avoiding the Word Storytelling

After having put some meaning back into storytelling, you might feel that storytelling is not storytelling at all. Maybe you are right and the storytelling that content creators do is not really storytelling. Then what can it be?

As put forward in the introduction, a very simple solution to fight semantic satiation is to stop using the word storytelling all together. It could very well be that there are better alternatives. If content creators were no longer allowed to utter the word storytelling they would have to use different terms and become more descriptive. Maybe they would even come up with a field specific term. This is not a bad thing if it creates clarity.


So what could be an alternative? I am very open to suggestions. To kick-start the discussion, however, I will put forward a term:

Emotivating. Not a real word yet, but it seems to cover the above description quite well. Not only does it refer to the emotional response but also that content is created to motivate people into action. In short, emotionally activate.

Perhaps demanding an alternative is too much to ask. If in practice storytelling makes enough sense there obviously is no need for an alternative. Maybe the extra room for interpretation sparks the imagination and allows for great storytelling to happen. As I see it, even storytelling has a story to tell and it has not finished yet. Storytelling. Storytelling. Storytelling.

If you would like to read more on words that stop making sense check out this Guardian article or this Science of Us article.