Oracles, shamans and storytellers

Work with us

By Bob Bailly

Artists, poets, writers, revolutionaries, magicians, explorers, musicians and creative innovators of all kinds are among us today. Their muses, oracles and inspiration are available to us all if we want to understand their secrets.

And one of those secrets is that they are all great storytellers.

Why are stories so powerful for humans? Why are the best orators also great storytellers? What can we learn from our desire to tell, listen and interpret stories that can be applied to what we do in our business lives?

To the best of our knowledge, humans are the only animals that have the ability to remember the past beyond their own lifetimes. This feature likely arose and continued as an essential aspect of human evolution for two reasons: the advent of language, and the need and requirement to seek a narrative for the events and interactions that shape our lives.

When we look at the foundation for our humaness, we look first at our brains. But as a blinding insight into the obvious, our brains are not our minds. The biochemical processes that can be measured by neuroscientists using modern diagnostic equipment hardly begins to explain our thoughts, or even the nature of those thoughts.

“The mind is more than the flow of energy across time within the brain. The mind is also about the flow of information,” Dr. Daniel Siegel writes in his book, Developing Mind.

“The mind has a distinct way of processing information from sensory systems that respond to the outside world, as well as ideas and concepts and words. Different circuits operate in the brain simultaneously, sometimes independently, but also interacting with others … We have complex representations of sensations, perceptions, ideas and linguistic symbols as we think, for example, of some time in the past. The integration of these distinct modes of information processing into a coherent whole may be a central goal for the developing mind across a lifetime.”

What this means is that we create memories by encoding them all over our brain. The elements of our experience creates a narrative, in effect creating a mental model of ourselves within that narrative.

This concept is also reinforced in a couple of books I’ve recently been purusing: Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist case for the Existence of the Soul, by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, and David Linden’s The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams and God.

Even spiritual thought comes from our intrinsic human desire for narrative. “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?” These are the obvious questions all humans consider as bookends to our actual lives.

So what does all of this have to do with marketing?

The marketer in me wanted to know what this has to do with selling products and ideas.

Simply put, products (or anything that is purchased) must also tell a story; products need to connect people, because products actually define part of who we are.

In the European Journal of Marketing, Richard Elliott from the University of Bath goes so far to argue that “consumers are engaged in authentic choices in the construction and communication of self and social meanings, and that these consumption choices can be conceptualized as the exercise of existential freedom.”

In effect, we are what we buy and we perceive our self worth often by how those purchase decisions are perceived by others. So the question becomes, where does your product – be it intellectual, virtual or real – fit into the narative of people’s lives?

A number of observers, including Helga Dittmar, a lecturer in psychology from the University of Sussex, concur. She has noted that individual self-identity is inseparable from our social identity, and this problematic relationship, that self-identity must be validated through social interaction, often results in individuals who define their identity by the consumption of products, services and experiences.

“Material possessions have a profound symbolic significance for their owners, as well as for other people, and the symbolic meaning of our belongings are an integral feature of expressing our own identity and perceiving the identity of others,” she wrote.

In a paper published in 2002, Bernard and Veronique Cova argued for considering a tribal model when looking at specific business practices such as marketing products and services.

They write, “we see marketing as the activity of designing and launching products and services destined to facilitate the co-presence and the communcal gathering of individuals … The credo of this so-called tribal marketing is that today consumers are not only looking for products and services which enable them to be freer, but also for products, services, employees and physical surroundings which can link them to others, to a tribe.”

In previous blogs I’ve written about the characteristics of tribes and as it turns out, it is the culture of all tribes to have and share stories that help to define the tribe. The New York Yankees, Microsoft, Google and your brands all have stories that define what they are.

So if you haven’t already done so, perhaps it’s time to (re)create your product story. Tell that story in new and refreshing ways, connect your tribe to the story and sell more of your products.

Where does creativity fit in?

And one last thought, somewhat unrelated perhaps, but then, maybe not.

How can you be more creative about telling your story? Over the weekend I glanced through an old favourite of mine, Roger von Oech’s A Whack on the Side of the Head. Originally published in 1983, its central premise – that creativity is fun, necessary and accessible to all of us – resonates as much today as ever. As a species, we wouldn’t be here today unless we could use the knowledge we gained in new and creative ways.

Early humans were constantly faced with new environmental obstacles and opportunities, and the ability to avoid pitfalls or exploit possibilities impacted our survival success. As he puts it: “Creative thinking requires an attitude that allows you to search for ideas and manipulate your knowledge and experience.” Or, as the Nobel Prize winning physician Albert Szent-Gyorgyi puts it: “Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.”

While it must seem strange that modern people working in contemporary settings need to be reminded that our very survival often rests on overcoming mental blocks and locks that inhibit creative thinking, much of our modern world doesn’t require it. For most of what we do, we are creatures of habit and routine. Our lives are often made easier by repeating daily patterns, whether it’s the drive to the office, handling paperwork or even where we buy our groceries. Creativity can be also be counterproductive, as witnessed by much of our educational system where it’s more about “preparing for the exam” than exploring new ways of doing things.

A Whack on the Side of the Head examines why we often prefer to be creatures of habit and, more importantly, how to unlock our brains when we do need to generate new ideas. The “whack” so to speak, is a metaphorical way of saying that we sometimes need to “dislodge the presuppositions that hold the locks in place.”

Maybe it’s time to create a new story.

Bob Bailly is a Calgary-based neuro-marketing practitioner.

Leave a comment:

Join us

Events We're Attending:

  • image description
  • image description
  • image description
  • image description
  • image description
  • image description
  • image description