Stories are as old as humankind. Cave paintings going back 25,000 years or more dramatically portray the story of the great Paleolithic hunts undertaken by our earliest ancestors. Glyphs recovered from Mayan pyramids and tombs of the Pharaohs tell a symbolic story of how the view of our place in the cosmos evolved over time. Throughout Celtic Europe, the bards held a place of the highest esteem for their disciplined talent of maintaining and passing on the stories of tribes and clans. The scriptures of our great religions take the form of parable and story, instructing and inspiring us to a higher good. Each of these is an example of how the very foundation of our human existence—the essence of who we are—is reliant on story.
We can safely surmise that without story, there could be no culture and without culture, our species would surely not have survived. How would we have learned to hunt, to gather, to plant, to create the first cities, if it were not for stories? Many so-called ‘primitive’ myths are often no more than stories that teach when to plant and when to harvest. In pre-literate times—the 99.99% of our human existence before the advent of the written word—stories were the primary means of transmitting everyday, practical knowledge from one generation to another. They are how we’ve accumulated and shared our “intellectual capital” for hundreds of generations.
Stories are a priceless culture-shaping tool. They help us to understand how we “fit in” to the larger social order. They are the principal means for transmitting what’s really important to the tribe, the clan, and the community. From stories we learn the very relative notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, what is expected and how we must behave. And we learn—vicariously—the consequences of failure. Fairy Tales are really morality stories that graphically demonstrate to children the consequences of their behavior.
At their best, stories are incredibly persuasive because they ‘speak to us’ at a very meaningful, emotional, and often-unconscious level. When a story makes the hair on the back of our necks tingle it is because that particular story has touched a very deep nerve in our personal or collective psyches.
The ‘storied’ brands and companies know this and they harness the energy of story to their competitive advantage. Nike isn’t just selling sports gear, anymore than Harley-Davidson is just selling motorcycles. Instead they are selling a story, a compelling story that touches us at a very deep and meaningful—and often unconscious—level. It is a story that makes us want to actively participate, to behave in ways that enable us to integrate it into our personal life stories. It is no coincidence that the most popular tattoos in the US feature, in some way, Harley Davidson.
Take Nike as another example. This is not merley a story about athletic gear. Imagine the scene as the 7237th finisher crosses the line at the Boston Marathon. Although spent and exhausted, she smiles weakly at the powerful emotions surrounding her accomplishment. In her own way she knows she is every bit as good as the first place finisher. Nike has not just provided her with shoes; it has facilitated her participation in an age-old story. This is a story of hard work and focused effort, perseverance in the face of pain and the ever-present possibility of defeat. Ultimately it is a story of triumph, however that is personally defined. This is a powerful story and Nike has harnessed it to its obvious competitive advantage.
Stories influence every facet of our lives. They are as ubiquitous as the air we breathe…and as important. Their power is there to harness, if we know the way.