Could storymaking be the natural remedy for the world’s attention deficit?


Andy Williams

A father of two grown-up daughters, a cyclist, an activist and a serial volunteer, Andy is most intrigued by what makes you tick. He’s also co-MD of Cohesive.

Under 4 minutes to read

Humans are hard-wired to make and share stories. This is the story of story making. Discover its relevance for today’s marketers.

Myths get a bad press. Nowadays we often use myth in place of ‘lie’ or ‘hoax’. But actual myths are far more elementary, purposeful and valuable. So valuable – to borrow from Voltaire – that if myths didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.

"If myths didn't exist, we'd have to invent them"

C’mon the Mighty Reds

Picture this – you and I walk into the same room, strangers to each other and everyone else. There’s a game on the screen over the bar. You let slip that you’re a big fan of the Mighty Reds. Wow – me too! We’ve both been marching in lockstep with the Red Army since we were kids. Marching to storm the league, lift the cup, crush all opposition. Winning’s our birthright, right? Champions to the core. So glad I met you. Listen, let’s stay in touch.

But here’s the thing – the Mighty Reds is a myth. Oh the players are real enough but the team is an abstraction. Its an act of shared imagination, powered by a vivid story that nourishes a kernel of real purpose, meaning and values. The Mighty Reds exists because we choose to believe it.

Myths evolve

In his 2014 book Sapiens, Dr Yuval Harari argues that our species of human* gave ourselves an unassailable competitive advantage – in a real, Darwinian sense – when we evolved the mental tools to make and share myths.

Harari argues that shared myths about gods, creation and nature helped our ancestors to bond and co-operate faster, better and on an exponentially larger scale. I may not know you from Adam, but the fact that we might both believe him to be the father of our people connects us at many levels. Imaginative, collaborative, sociable Sapiens outcompeted all other human species, spreading ourselves over the globe.

"The value of myths hasn't diminished: it's actually increased"

How is an ancient, all-conquering evolutionary strategy relevant to our lives today? Well, take a look around you. As soon as Sapiens were able to cooperate with strangers, we were able to trade surplus goods to resolve shortages. Trade was limited until the value of goods could be easily and universally established. That’s the job of money. What is the Pound (or Dollar) in your pocket actually worth? The real answer is: only as much as we collectively believe it to be. That shared belief in the purpose and principles of the currency markets, and in the story of the Bank of England and the US Federal Reserve, determines the value of currencies worldwide. When that belief falters – as we know too well – markets crumble.

Exploring the myth of the Apple brand

Hiding in plain sight is one of the most familiar modern myths – the brand. What makes Apple currently the richest and most successful company on Earth? The myth of the Apple brand. A vivid and rich story, with purpose and human values at its core.  The story encompasses a creation, a glorious ‘first age’, a fall from grace, a resurrection and a messianic leader. Its espoused purpose is to remove the barriers of technical complexity, so liberating human ingenuity. It promotes values such as excellence over mediocrity, innovation over copycat. It even occasionally manages to still act and sound like a David, when it is actually a Goliath.

"The power wielded by Apple Computer Inc comes from living its own myth"

And the power wielded by Apple Computer Inc comes from living its own myth… abiding by it, nurturing it, sharing it.  Being the creatures that evolution made us, tens of millions of Sapiens are happy to live it, nurture it and share it too.

The storymaking genes; what marketers need to know

To summarise the story so far: the human instinct to make and tell stories is as strong as that to walk on two legs – and even more unique. There are genes for it, that passed the test of natural selection at least 30,000 years ago. They allowed Sapiens – you and I – the crushing advantage of sharing ‘a meeting of minds’. In a world that requires us to connect, collaborate and cut-through at an accelerating pace, that’s maybe more relevant today than ever.

"The world has a growing attention deficit. Sharing bland information, trumpeting claims and counterclaims - none of that cuts through"

If you are a leader or marketer of a business and you don’t harness this latent capability, then you are really not behaving all that wisely. The world has a growing attention deficit. Sharing bland information, trumpeting claims and counterclaims – none of that cuts through. But your story can.

Understand the real purpose of your business. What does it exist to do? Why is it so gifted at doing it? What strengths, talents, beliefs and ethics are you harnessing? Create THAT story, keep it honest, and tell it well. Figure out your company’s brand myth, nourish it and invest in it. Do it right, and it will be your greatest natural asset.

*Homo Sapiens Sapiens (‘wisest of wise men’). As distinct from Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis and maybe as many as three other human species that, for a while, we shared the planet with

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