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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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Part 1 of ‘Evergreen Stories’ can be found here.
Over the last 200 years, storytelling has become synonymous with the word ‘entertainment’. The most popular modern form of story is the film, or movie. Most people will tell you they go to the movies to be entertained.
But is it really this simple?
Entertainment is one role of a story, and certainly an appealing role. But a story that only serves to entertain is quickly forgotten. After the bombs, explosions and special effects die down, you go back to ‘real life’ with the same outlook, perspective and experience. The entertainment quickly evaporates once the movie ends.
In his book The Pledge, Michael Masterson argues that all the activities you fill your life with fall into three categories; golden, vaporous, and acidic.
Acidic activities are things that harm you, or harm your relationships with those around you. Vaporous activities leave you more or less the same. Golden activities improve you in some way.
A single activity can fall into all three categories, depending on the circumstances. For me, getting drunk is an acidic activity. I don’t do it veryoften, but drunkenness usually leads to me being obnoxious and sick. (In that order).
Once or twice a week I’ll have a small glass of whisky at home. The odd measure of whisky here and there leaves me as I was, but the pleasure I feel from drinking it evaporates quickly once the glass is empty.
For me, sharing a good whisky with a friend I haven’t seen for a long time is a golden activity. The drinking itself is a catalyst to strengthen my relationships with those around me, which in a way improves me.
Using the same framework to look at entertainment, I would argue that playing video games is an acidic entertainment activity. Especially modern computer games, where it is possible to disappear into a fabricated world for weeks at a time, talking only to people you know online.
Most films, especially the dross produced by Hollywood, belong in the vapour category. It’s entertaining at the time; a bit like a mental joy-ride. But once the film ends and the ride stops, you’re back to where you were before the film.
In the golden category, an exceptional film will both entertain you, and teach you something along the way. When you watch The Shawshank Redemption, or Fatal Attraction, the film is still entertaining. But underneath the entertainment the film has a deeper message. ‘Watch yourself…’ is the message. ‘This could happen to you…‘
Obviously the film heightens the message through drama. It’s unlikely in real life that you would commit adultery with a woman who would go on to boil your daughter’s pet rabbit. But we recognise a truth in the warning.
A really great story does entertain you, but is also does something else. It lingers around in a subconscious brain for a little while, poking and prodding at things you thought you knew.
The challenge we face as business owners, marketers and humans, is to tell more golden stories. To tell stories that still entertain your audience, but also leave them better off for listening to you.
You don’t have to broadcast the fact that you are telling a story. You don’t have to start off by saying ‘once upon a time’. In the last couple of pages I’ve told you about my whisky drinking habits, to illustrate the point I wanted to make. I could have just told you the point without the illustration, but it wouldn’t have been as illuminating.
Most marketers shy away from telling stories, believing instead that their customers are only interested in information. It is true that the closer somebody comes to placing an order with you, the more information they need about your proposition. But with any ‘high ticket’ purchase, the decision to buy from you does not happen as a result of information. Information only serves to justify a decision already made at a previous stage.
To get to the point where a potential buyer is receptive to your information, they need to first trust you on an emotional level. You need to have held their attention for a period of time. To my knowledge, stories are the most effective and least understood way to do this.
As a species, modern humans (homo sapiens) are a relatively new addition to the world. Our ancestors first appeared in Africa, about 200,000 years ago. If this sounds like a long time to you, consider that the Tyrannosaurus Rex lived 65 million years ago.
In the long history of the Earth, human dominance is a relatively new development. And human dominance, it seems, was once far from assured.
Most people who live outside of Africa can genetically trace their lineage back to a small group of humans who left Africa, about 100,000 years ago. Geneticists estimate there were no more than between 150 and 1000 individuals in the group.
At the time, leaving Africa would have been a major ordeal. As it does today, the Sahara desert would have presented an impassable barrier to the North. A widely held belief is that our small band of ancestors ‘escaped’ from Africa across the Red Sea, in a window of opportunity when sea levels were up to 70 metres lower. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s likely they will have rafted across in treacherous conditions.
On arriving in Arabia, they would have been confronted with more desert. How would they have survived, on the arid Arabian peninsula? And how would they have escaped, to colonise the rest of the world?
With sea levels much lower, it’s possible there were once a series of natural springs across the coast of Arabia. You can still see evidence of these springs, like this one at Al Ain on the UAE-Oman border.
It’s possible that over thousands of years, our ancestors made their way around the Arabian coast, stopping off at green centres of respite.
Regardless of whether the ‘escape from Africa’ theory is historically accurate, do you see how this has the beginnings of an epic story? We already have a ‘quest’ plot on our hands. We have the ‘helping’ rejuvinating forces of the springs. We have the ‘deadly force’ of the desert, complete with any monsters it may have contained.
Even if the story isn’t true, it’s certainly plausible enough for your mind’s eye to entertain the image, and for it to hold your attention.
We’ll look at what this means tomorrow.
I’m currently rewriting my book for copywriters, the Nurture Email Code. The book title is likely to change in the next few weeks, to ‘Evergreen Business Stories’.
Over the next 7 days I’m going to publish a series of excerpts from the revised book, allowing you to read it as it is written. A bit like how Charles Dickens, or Alexandre Dumas wrote their books; in exciting instalments :-).
Instalment one is below.
“Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type, it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are.”
As far as we know, humans are more developed than any other animal in our ability to imagine events and happenings through our mind’s eye. Aristotle called this our ability to ‘imitate’. To imagine scenes and events that exist outside of ourselves. To ‘play through’ and draw lessons from past events, possible future events, and even events that will never come into existence.
You spend your entire day swimming in a sea of stories. Imagine for a moment that we met up one afternoon for coffee. How would you answer the following questions?
All of these questions get answered with a story. It may be a mundane story about regular day-to-day happenings, but each answer would be a story, nonetheless.
I see people telling stories and listening to stories, every time I step outside the house. Every time I go to the local pub, there are people telling stories. Every time I catch a tram, there are people telling (sometimes juicy) stories, albeit often through the medium of a mobile telephone.
Stories are like the fabric of life; our way of viewing the world. As you tell your stories you leave little fingerprints on that fabric. Each story you tell contains a microscopic slice of your experience as a person.
As the picture-reels of your imagination roll in your head, your mind’s eye is very poor at distinguishing between real and non-real events. Even when you’re asleep, a dream can still feel real. The fear you feel when you first wake up from a nightmare is real physical response to something that has scared you.
When you’re in the cinema watching a film, the emotions you feel are also real. If the story is good we feel genuine fear when the hero of the story gets into danger. We feel real discomfort when they make poor decisions.
Neuroscientists have found (see reference 1) that when we watch somebody who is in pain, it activates the area of our own brain called the ‘pain matrix’. In real time your brain runs a compelling simulation of what it would be like in the character’s situation. This simulation is the basis of empathy; the ability to feel the emotions of others. To an extent you really do feel their pain.
The way we feel empathy may be more complicated than we realise. In a fascinating experiment, the neuroscientists showed two groups of people a shocking film, and measured the pain matrix activity in the particuipants’ brains. One group of participants consisted only of Botox users; people who inject their facial muscles with the paralysis toxin Botox. The second group was made up of non-botox users. The Botox users showed a lower pain matrix response to the film.
When we meet or see another person, it seems we temporarily mirror the other person’s facial expressions to help us read their emotions. It’s almost like we ‘try on’ their facial expression, to see for ourselves how they are feeling. People with less control over their face may lose some capacity to feel empathy.
All of this helps to explain why a story, which we know not to be real, triggers the real emotional response we can feel. It helps to explain why we can cry at a film or television programme, even when the acting is less than exceptional. We feel an emotion because over the course of a story we build a connection with the hero or heroine. To a degree we end up walking in their shoes, trying on their emotions.
You don’t choose whether or not you feel these emotions. Assuming your facial muscles are working correctly, it’s an autonomic physical response.
When you tell stories in your marketing, you’re really building an emotional connection with your reader. You’re building a connection so that when you need to ask them for something, you already have their trusting attention.
A well-told story can introduce the same trance-like state of attention that a dream can command. You’re in a trance-like state of attention when you stop noticing everything else. When you stop noticing what time it is, or that the potatoes are boiling over, or that the bath has gone cold.
Everybody has to sell, in some capacity. Whether you are selling yourself, your products or your ideas, you can only transact a deal with someone if you have their attention. And attention has become increasingly hard to keep hold of.
You can get the attention of potential customers easily enough. You can post something attention-grabbing on Facebook, or Twitter. But keeping that attention beyond the initial interaction, or the initial ‘like’, has become difficult. If a customer is going to spend good money with you, they have to know, like and trust you. Building this trust requires an extended period of attention, not just a flash-in-the-pan Facebook post.
In my opinion, storytelling is the best way to keep the attention of your audience over a long period of time. But why do stories generate this level of ongoing attention? Why are we so in-tune with stories?
Why do we seem to have a story-radar, blipping around in our minds?
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