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December 1, 2016

Evergreen Stories Part 3: Are stories linked to survival?

We were talking yesterday about the role that stories play in society, and why a good story is more than simple entertainment. If you missed yesterday’s email you can find it here.

Part 3: Stories are a survival tool

100,000 years ago, the need to survive was far more pressing than it is today. And yet, evidence suggests the early humans were all telling stories, to each other and to themselves.

When modern humans first entered Europe about 70,000 years ago, Europe was already occupied by another human species called Neanderthals. Neanderthals were bigger than us. They had bigger brains, and better tools. They were better adapted to the cold.

So why did modern humans survive, and Neanderthals die out?

This figure of a lion man was found in Eastern Europe, preserved in a bog. Experts believe it is 35,000 years old, and the work of a modern human.

Lion Man

Importantly, similar copies of the lion man have been found at sites 30-50 kilometres apart. That’s a long way on foot.

Contrary to popular belief, the early tribes of modern humans were never isolated. Unlike Neanderthals, who lived in small isolated tribes, modern humans across fairly large areas seem to have shared an identity and culture through their art.

Art and storytelling today still holds the same purpose it did 40,000 years ago; to foster a shared understanding and identity. None of the great feats of human achievement have been achieved by people working in isolation. Artistic expression and storytelling was an early technology that gave modern humans an advantage over competing species. It’s possible we were simply better at collaborating through a shared culture; a culture nurtured by art, stories and rituals.

You can still see this binding cultural effect in indigenous cultures around the world. The totem poles of the native North Americans served the same purpose as the woven textiles of the Inca. They both served to bind members of the community together in a shared culture and identity.

Sometimes the stories are told in different formats; songs, dances, rituals, drawings.


The artefact above is called a khipu, which in the Inca language Quechua means ‘knot’. It belongs to a civilisation that thrived in Northern Peru before the Inca expansion, called the Chachapoyans.

Nobody knows what the khipu represents, but experts think it wasn’t meant to be worn. Each strand contains knots of different sizes, spaced at different intervals. Collectively we have now lost the ability to interpret the khipu, but it may represent a cultural history, or story.

In the history of human development, the written word is a relatively recent technology. For thousands of years, stories were the only way knowledge and cultural memories were passed on from one generation to the next. Stories would have been told verbally, or perhaps using devices like a khipu.

Story telling rituals are just as important today as they were for ancient people. Every year on remembrance Sunday, I am rightly told off by my wife when I forget to buy a poppy.

Remembrance Sunday is important because it passes on a shared cultural memory. As the final survivors of the two World Wars pass away, the story of the horror is all we have to learn from.

The line between history and storytelling is blurry. A historical narrative has to be maintained using stories, or else it fades away, to be forgotten forever. The lessons have to be passed to the next generation, and storytelling is still the most effective tool to do that.

When you consider the role that stories have played in human development, is it any wonder they do such a good job of holding your attention?

How do stories relate to your business?

The best theories about the way the world works are invariably simple. One of my favourite theories about business is Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle.

Golden Circle

The ‘what’ circle represents everything that you do. It includes all your offers, features and benefits. Most business owners have a clear idea of what it is they do.

The ‘how’ circle is how you do it, your ‘Unique Selling Proposition’, or point of differentiation. Few businesses have a truly unique proposition, or way of doing things.

At the highest level, we have ‘why’. Why includes why your business exists and what you believe in.

The obvious thing to do is to go from the outside in, to go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest. The real challenge in marketing is to tackle the fuzzy issue of why, and communicate this before you talk about how and what.

In the brain of your potential customer, the ‘outer brain’ or neocortex processes all rational ‘what’ arguments. The neocortex is in charge of rational thought, and can process complex information about features, benefits and pricing. Unfortunately however, the neocortex has no decision making authority. It can only serve to justify a decision with logic.

The neocortex is like a statistician tucked away in a government office. It can review the numbers. It can recommend a logical, sensible course of action. But it cannot take any decisions.

So where do the decisions happen?

Decisions themselves are made by the older part of your brain, the limbic brain. The limbic brain deals with emotions, feelings and social connections. It is where trust and loyalty come from, and it is responsible for every decision you ever make.

I recently watched a documentary about the human brain, which featured a lady called Tammy. Tammy had fallen off a motorcycle, and injured her head. The injury has somehow ‘unlinked’ emotion and logic in her brain. In the programme, Tammy and the film production team went into a supermarket.

In the store, all decisions for Tammy were a big deal. Tammy could take on information about six choices of apple, but she wasn’t able to prioritise one option over another. She struggled to come to any decisions because her limbic brain had somehow been disconnected from the decision-making process.

Your customers find it very difficult to explain what goes on in their emotional decision making process. This is partly because they would rather you didn’t know, but mainly because logical neocortex-level arguments are easier to articulate.

Nobody ever bought a Macbook because it was a better deal than a Windows equivalent. If you’re a Mac user, you can justify your decision to me any way you like, but at some point your limbic brain emotionally bought into the idea of the Mac. Before people buy what you do, they first buy why you do it.

Storytelling allows you to move the conversation in your marketing away from what you do, towards the higher emotional levels of how and why. A story has the ability to slip past the logical gatekeeper in your prospect’s brain, and first engage the limbic brain with an emotionally compelling story.

Next time, we’ll look at two ways to tell stories about why you are in business, rather than about what you do.

Rob Drummond

Rob Drummond runs the Maze Marketing Podcast and Maze Mastery. Rob specialises in content production, ad creation, storytelling and CRM systems. He has two published books, Magnetic Expertise and Simple Story Selling, affordable on Amazon.