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Telling Stories

A Snarketing post by Ron Shevlin, Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors

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. 

Ron ShevlinRon Shevlin is Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors. Get a copy of his best-selling book, Smarter Bank: Why Money Management is More Important Than Money Movement. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter at @rshevlin.

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  1. Glad to see that you support the value of storytelling Ron, more precisely “authentic” storytelling, not hackneyed fluff wrapped in bullshit feel good nonsense. I’ve been singing that tune for years, as evidenced by our ‘WHO ARE YOU’ intro in Nashville. Our firm believes that it’s not about selling, it’s about telling: members want to know who you are as an institution, what you believe in, what you hold true. We believe it is this core value, this connection you create with members and prospective members alike, that keeps your relationship strong and long-lasting.

  2. Hell yeah. Check out this post from 4+ years ago:

  3. Morris P. had/has it right. Telling a story needs to be a C-level decision, and demands their full commitment and involvement. It needs to be the basis for a discernible brand position, one that is acted on and delivered, and not simply a veneer that the marketing dept. just slaps on.

  4. I’ll buy your argument that the most effective stories are ones that readers and hearers want to tell themselves, and it’s true in politics and war as well as in business. But why did you have to go and ruin a good argument by using the WSJ article reference to English majors as a springboard? I’m a devoted reader, Ron, and I’m usually struck by your humanity and modesty along with the insightful thinking. This time you come off sounding arrogant and narrow minded, and needlessly so. You’re a numbers guy. Would you care to estimate how many “great leaders, managers and salespeople” there are who also happen to have been an English major? And then estimate how many English majors developed into great lawyers, physicians, legislators, combat pilots, journalists, film makers and soldiers.

  5. Michael Weber says:

    God help us if we need to become English majors in order to learn how to communicate.

  6. George: You know, it’s funny you should bring this up. I’ve been feeling — for a good couple of months now — that I haven’t been arrogant and narrow-minded ENOUGH on this site. I feel like the blog’s gone soft. Felt like I lost my inner snark.

    Then along comes this WSJ article, and BAM! A chance to take down two entities — some crackpot silicon valley entrepreneur who thinks the key to start-up success is hiring English majors AND English majors, who, god bless ’em, are the last people you want to put into management positions in start ups.

    I was thinking, “finally! after months of lame, serious sounding banking posts, I can finally sink my teeth into a nice big snarky pie!”

    But, alas, if you think I’m sounding “arrogant” and “narrow minded” then I’ve clearly failed here.

    But to answer your questions:

    1) Q: How many “great leaders, managers and salespeople” there are who also happen to have been an English major? A: NONE. (Fyi, if we had an English major here, s/he would tell you to proper grammar would have been to end the question with “have been English majors?”)

    2) Q: How many English majors developed into great lawyers, physicians, legislators, combat pilots, journalists, film makers and soldiers. A: I don’t know. But since we’re talking about managers, leaders, salespeople, and entrepreneurs, I think I should be excused for not knowing.

    Thanks for reading, George. Really sorry to disappoint you with this post. I think you’re the first person to use the words “humanity” and “modesty” in connection to this blog. 🙂

  7. Dennis Christensen says:

    Olivier, Hope you are well. Your comment leads me to ask a question that seems to be in the news these days. Was Romney right when he said “Corporations are people, too.”? He sure took a lot of flack for that comment. Was he right? I think the word “businesses” could replace the word “corporations”. We are touting our core values and what we believe. we hope it reasonates with our members.

  8. Ron: I wouldn’t expect a retraction of your snarky comments about the unfitness of English majors to be contributors to the success of high-tech startups. However, for the benefit of any readers who might unthinkingly adopt your bias, I wish to report a few facts appearing several minutes ago in the top-ranked result of a Google search for “Nobel Prize winners who were English majors.” These individuals are just some of the many people who were college English majors. Perhaps you’ll recognize some of the names. I’ll begin with the business world.
    Mitt Romney (former governor of Massachusetts–something of a leadership position; former CEO of Bain Capital, which, as I recall reading, was a startup at the time)
    Hank Paulson (former chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs and former Secretary of the Treasury)
    Anne M. Mulcahy (former CEO and chairwoman of Xerox Corp.)
    Steve Wynn (real estate developer)
    Herb Scannell (president of Nickelodeon Networks and of MTV Networks Group)
    Grant Tinker (former chairman and CEO of NBC)
    Michael Lynne (co-founder of New Line Cinema)
    S. I. Hayakawa (university president, politician)
    Sally Ride (physicist, astronaut)
    Rachel Carson (biologist)
    Benjamin Spock, M.D.
    B. F. Skinner, M.D.
    Rollo May, M.D.
    Pete Wilson (former governor of California)
    Carol Browner (former head of the EPA)
    John Paul Stevens (US Supreme Court Justice)
    Clarence Thomas (US Supreme Court Justice)
    Paul Simon (songwriter, musician)
    Matt Damon (actor, screenwriter, producer)
    Alvin Hansen (economist, former president of the American Economics Association)
    Diane Sawyer (ABC World News anchor)
    Howard Cosell (sports broadcaster)
    John Baur (former director of the Whitney Museum)
    John Cavanaugh (former president of the University of Notre Dame)

    Source: George Mason University English Department

    GMU’s list contains many more and surely there are many more still who could be added to it. One might look at these names and see a sizable body of accomplishment far outside the academic confines of an English major. Apparently though, as you would have it, the world missed out on having the benefits of some potentially very talented editors.

  9. George: Let’s review: Some Silicon Valley VC says he thinks English majors are what he wants running tech startups because they’re supposedly better at telling stories. I dispute that claim. And then you compile a list of famous/successful people who were English majors. We have a couple of problems here:

    1. There’s no proof these people were successful BECAUSE they were English majors. In fact, a number of them went on to get other degrees (MBAs, MDs) that had little or nothing to do with their English major. Even YOU went on to get a Masters in something other than English.
    2. The argument centers arounds English majors and startups. Your list of successful people includes few – if any – entrepreneurs.

    Looking back, I wish I had been an English major. If I knew then what I know, I would have realized that it was more in line with my interests, and would have been better preparation for what I’ve ended up doing.

    But it would not have made me better suited for an entrepreneurial endeavor.

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