Jonathan Gottschall’s captivating book, The Storytelling Animal, begins with — as one might expect — a story.
The story goes that a group of sailors were “zagging” off the coast of South America in 1821. They were whaling, in a ship named the Dauphin under the command of a captain named Zimri Coffin. One day, on the horizon, a small boat popped into view — in the middle of the ocean. Here’s an account of what the Dauphin crew saw, according to Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, as quoted by Gottschall:
“Under Coffin’s watchful eye, the helmsman brought the ship as close as possible to the derelict craft. Even though their momentum quickly swept them past it, the brief seconds during which the ship loomed over the open boat presented a sight that would stay with the crew the rest of their lives…
First they saw bones — human bones — littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious man-eating beast.
Then they saw the two men.
They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood. They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates.”
Quick: think about where you were when you read that. Do you recall how the seat you were sitting in felt, while you were imagining the salt-caked beards of the cannibal shipmates? Did someone in the room with you happen to cough while you read this? Do you recall what background noise happened outside? Any trucks, sirens?
Think about the last time you watched a movie or read a book and were suddenly snapped back to reality by a noise in the house.”
Chances are, by the time you finished reading that passage, your brain had pulled you deeply into the story, to the point that your imagination started filling in the scene and your present circumstances started fading into the background of your consciousness. This is what Gottschall calls “the witchery of story,” and it’s what our brains have been biologically programmed to do.
“Story is the glue of human social life — defining groups and holding them together,” he writes. We are hard-wired to dramatize, to imagine, and to be pulled into good stories. Think about the last time you watched a movie or read a book and were suddenly snapped back to reality by a noise in the house. You hadn’t realized that you’d lost awareness of your surroundings, that the story wasn’t something you were really experiencing. That process — those trips to Neverland — brings us together and helps our brains remember. (It’s what our brains do all night long, in fact, while we sleep!) Interestingly, that’s exactly what brands spend millions of dollars each year in advertising to encourage people to do — remember.
I read a lot of books. And a lot of books have had profound impacts on my life. But The Storytelling Animal is the most recent one to do so because it affects the trends that are on my mind lately as a businessperson and a writer. In today’s hyper-connected world, every company is being told that it needs to become a publisher, so it can build relationships with customers. (That’s, essentially, what brands work with my startup to do, so I’m extra interested.)
The Storytelling Animal has helped me to reevaluate the way I think about human connections, and about both my business and my personal brand.”
But whether you’re an individual on Twitter or a company pumping out blog posts, publishing itself is not the point. Building relationships is the point. And the best way throughout history to build relationships, as Gottschall’s book points out, is through stories.
Our cave-painting early ancestors didn’t walk into caves with crushed berries and twig brushes declaring, “I’m going to create some CONTENT!” When they passed down family legends around the fire after a long day of foraging and hunting, they didn’t say, “Gather round, everybody; it’s CONTENT TIME!”
No. They just told stories.
I’m convinced that storytelling can transform any business, and that storytelling will transform business at large. And, as I’ve written before, it’s a skill that we the people who make businesses turn need to develop ourselves to remain competitive.
The Storytelling Animal has helped me to reevaluate the way I think about human connections, and about both my business and my personal brand. Now, when I give presentations, I start with stories — personal stories, when possible. When I pitch investors or clients, I lead with the story of why we’re doing what we’re doing, or the story of how one of our customers solved a huge problem with our product — rather than speaking in abstract terms about our product’s features.
If we are to succeed — as employees, as managers, as businesses, as publishers—we need to stop talking about selling and marketing and start talking about how we can tell real, engrossing, human stories that people will remember and associate with us. Stories with heroes and villains, protagonists and plot, curious beginnings and gripping endings. I’m not talking about fiction. I’m talking about conveying fact and information through narrative instead of marketing copy or self-serving status updates.
Gather round, everybody; it’s CONTENT TIME!”
“A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life,” Gottschall writes. “The catalyst is the reader’s imagination.”
Here’s to unlocking our collective imaginations.