Businesses and brands can’t afford to ignore the one activity which defines us as humans
I recently read Sapiens, A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari1; and a wonderful and informative read it was! One claim struck me; around 70,000 years ago the ‘cognitive revolution’ occurred, this was defined by the advent of conscious decision-making, reflection and – vitally – imagination. Humans – it turns out – are the only known species to be able to imagine and convey concepts that they have not actually witnessed, ideas that are intangible, beliefs and explanations that cannot be physically proved. And – long before the emergence of the written word – storytelling was the modus operandi for passing on such knowledge.
Storytelling was used to teach, to warn, to justify, to explain; the construction of a story provided early humans with a context in which to present their ideas which, in many cases were intangible, using objects and experiences that were already familiar; in effect, ‘proxies’. In addition to aiding comprehension, the storytelling format dramatically increased the ease with content could be remembered, recalled and transferred. It’s no accident that all the World’s great religions – whether you believe them to be actual events, or simply allegories to convey a particular message – are based on stories.
I see this as a real vindication of my profession, public relations; based as it is on storytelling.
Writer and social commentator Neil Gaiman describes stories as2
“ . . . genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance . . ..” He even goes so far as to describe them as possessing the same qualities that define any living organism:
“Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die . . . .”
The beauty, and nature, of stories is that – in order to function – they have to be good, not necessarily true. According to Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner3 (who died earlier this year), it is this difference – between provable fact and storytelling – that makes the latter so compelling:
“A story (allegedly true or allegedly fictional) is judged for its goodness as a story by criteria that are of a different kind from those used to judge a logical argument as adequate or correct . . . Western scientific and philosophical worldview has been largely concerned with the question of how to know truth, whereas storytellers are concerned with the question of how to endow experience with meaning . . .”
The above is why storytelling should be such a priority for brands; great narratives enable them to overcome the barrier of facts and figures and head towards the realm of aspiration and belief, which is a far more conducive environment for building loyalty.
Jonathan Gottschall, a professor of literature writes in The Harvard Business Review that storytelling as a powerful form of messaging, “ . . . far from being a soft, touchy-feely skill, storytelling was a powerful form of witchery. A great storyteller waves her pen over paper like a wand. She casts a spell that allows her to enter minds and change what they feel, which allows her to change what they think, which allows her to influence how they act . . .” Heady stuff for any brand manager!
Public relations is the only profession built on and powered by storytelling; and this is why it’s so compelling. Taglines, TVCs, logos, jingles and celebrity endorsements may steal the headlines, but none of those marketing ploys can claim to define humanity in the way that storytelling does!