As readers of this blog might have noticed, I prefer crafting narratives. I think this comes naturally to me in my role as the Chief Creative Officer, but as I transition to a larger more important role of the Chief Executive Officer, I am starting to see that I do have some prowess in my left brain too. This was extremely odd to me, because I grew up with the narrative of the Left-Brain vs Right-Brain marketing and thinking. A for a large segment of my life, I have been a conventional Right-Brain thinker. Or at least, that's what I have been told. Now for people who are strangers to this theory, let me summarise down below:
Left Brain vs Right Brain Marketing
To start off with let's clearly define the two camps. I would say the Left-Brain type people resort to systems thinking or theories, whereas the Right-Brain type of people gravitate more to storytelling.
I love the concepts of storytelling and will veraciously defend it till the day I die. I believe, and have some measure (I hope) of factual experience that storytelling helps us better make sense of the world we live in. You disagree? Well hear me out...
Storytelling is as old as culture. And almost every society in the world has established a strong storytelling tradition. You know those Christmas, Eid, Passover or Diwali stories with friends and family, where you have your elders retelling you, stories of their life and their wealth of experiences? Well, that is a clear-cut tradition of passing down the wisdom, through Anthropology, Sociology, Religion, Social Studies, or just plain storytelling. It's as universal and as ancient as mankind is.
From the cavemen who told their stories and left remnants for us to see on the cave walls of ancient human civilisation to the Sistine Chapel Ceiling paintings by Michelangelo, and more recently to Banksy murals on street walls the world over, stories are there for us all to see. For me, this fascination is more professional and somewhat personal. I want to find ways to improve at both understanding and telling stories better. And the only way to improve is two ways: theory and practice.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty and try to understand how to better utilize these two instruments (theories and/or storytelling), let's try and figure out commonalities between the two. Or in storytelling form, let me set the stage for you.
Both stories and theories are our way of understanding and representing the reality we live in. With theories its more straight cut, but stories - even the wilder imaginative Sci-Fi ones - are representations of reality. For a story to connect, it has to represent some level of truth, or it would be alien to us. Its either characters should be human-like or relatable that they go through some sort of emotion, elements of time, space, objects and events should be representative of a reality that we recognize.
This boils down to a simple fundamental fact, stories and theories are always derived from first-hand experience. Our MO as humans is participation, and it's through this that we have our fundamental understanding of reality, and this is innate, implied, sometimes contextual, but always intimate and deep. The many facets that we use to construct our stories are the raw materials from which we connect to on a deeper, sometime inexplicable level.
Stage set let's get on with the show.
Why are stories such powerful tools in understanding our world, after all philosophers from Plato to Dewey, and every human after and to come will have been arguing on these ideas, and these concepts I am presenting to you.
Enter the human condition - emotions.
First stories are engaging, ever so often even captivating. A great story enthrals its audience in a drug like vice, enamouring them, captivating them so they can absorb the sordid details, and decipher as much information as humanly possible.
Second, stories are great at inciting empathy. Simply put, its putting yourself in someone else's shoes, in order to understand what they feel. This is decisively a human trait. It liberates us from our often-chaotic lives, to make us understand how different the world is through someone else's eyes. And stories connect us with a myriad of characters, suddenly we now see the world from a multitude of perspectives.
But dare I say it, reality is highly engaging too (though subjective in most cases), and your own personal reality gives you ample opportunities to empathize with countless humans. So why turn to stories?
A couple of reasons, but let's start with scope. This wide all-encompassing experience, that stories deliver to us, could never be reached by ourselves directly. We see every facet of every human condition, from the highest of highs, to the lowest of lows. Stories show us what it's like to be male, female and transgender, what it's like to be rich and poor, brown and red and all the colours in between, on the good side and on the bad side, to live in Kampala and to live in Dubai, Mumbai and Tokyo, Singapore and Kabul, to the past and somewhere in the very distant future, to live through wars and agonizing famine, to live as a Viking and as a Mafioso in the 1930s, to experience births, deaths, and various levels of life in between and a million other things.
Stories focus on what's exciting and what's different, and on rare ambitious occasions, a story will even cover what it's like to be without senses, floating in a sensory deprivation tank.
They give us access to hypotheticals. What if Christopher Colombus actually reached India? What if we were living under the Third Reich? What if you lost everything you worked so hard for? What if we are living in a computer simulation?
We can understand reality in different speeds and humongous scales. The storyteller's lens can record any type of video, be it high-speed, slow-motion, wide-angle, or time-lapse. It can zoom into the tiniest, relatively insignificant details like an ant walking down the road, carrying a morsel 5 times its weight, the most minute smirk that a serial killer gives just as he's about to get bail. Or it can zoom out and in a 15 second segment take us through the rise and fall of an entire civilization, spanning multiple centuries and trillions of lives.
That's not all, it's not only about the breadth of the scope, but how deep it is. It's almost eerier how small simple phrases can channel so much emotion. It can take you inside someone's head in a way no experience can, enabling sympathy for a seemingly horrendous individual, but illustrating the hell they came from as a child.
The final thing that stories provide is legibility. With the world being so chaotic and hard to decipher, stories simplify reality, presenting it in a way anyone can understand. Characters are more evocative, action punchier, cause and effect more pronounced. Legibility is amazing, but it's always in tension with something equally bloody important: realism. Legibility and reality aren't always diametrically opposed, but they aren't always complementary either. The more a story tries to paint a very matter of fact image, the less realistic it gets, but the more it sticks with realism and ignores the drama, the more boring it gets.
Remember stories have to omit details, but as the saying goes, the devil lies in the detail being omitted. Legibility casts the environment in easy perception, enhancing the details while omitting the ones that distract. But oversimplification, that's leaving out the essential. Legibility is a balancing act, its a delicate art.
Another way of making sense of this world that we all live in, is theories. Theories take the cumulative approach, looking at systems of groupings, individuals, cultures and behaviours to identify patterns within a system. By the way, stories can and often do inform theories, and vice versa, but they are fundamentally different, almost diametrically opposite ways of understanding our world.
We know why stories are powerful, so let's approach why are theories so powerful?
Now forgive me, we might have a bit of repetition here, but as I mentioned the devil is in the details. First off, is again scope. While the scope of stories is humongous in comparison to your direct experience, the scope of theories is vaster, perhaps infinitely so.
Theories provide perspective-shifting, mind-altering shifts in understanding reality. You now can think of smaller and larger objects, at smaller and larger time scales, in ways that defy personal experience. We can theorize about the tiniest particulars (quarks), a billion times smaller than anything visible to the naked eye, to the size and the grandeur of ever-expanding universe (which we in scale are a relatively insignificant part off). We use theories to understand how we evolved from Neanderthals to the earliest seconds of the Big Bang.
Theories help us understand how the space dust combined to make the planet we live on, and how through a not-so-distant connection, we share commonalities with every fungus, bacterium, plant and animal. It shows us our deepest motivations, how our brains work, and how our social systems function (or fail) at gigantic scales. It hypothesizes how we could use a nuclear bomb to terraform planets, using a destructive tool to probably seed mankind as a space faring civilization.
Stories lets us see the world through many lenses, but they are all human eyes, human perspectives. Theories show us reality as it actually is, and its ultimately powerful because it allows us to make predictions.
Predictions are great because they are specific in telling us what's going to happen, before it actually does. Stories in retrospect are just case studies, they can help us reason about the future, but only if it is by means of a theory.
Predictions are great because they help us go back and check if a theory is true or not. And this is the fundamentals of all scientific discovery. Falsification. All knowledge, all progress, all inventions are dependent on falseability.
Remember the tension between legibility and realism in stories? There is no such tension with theories. While some do admit to a greater or lesser realism, they can be false, or oversimplified. But weak theories, more often than not are always exposed, when they make bad predictions.
Theories are legible by construction, but as Dreyfus has pointed out, theories need not be explicit to be powerful and useful. Theories though have their space and domain in Science and Technology, but in marketing and with anything to do with the human emotion, stories reign supreme. Deconstructing a narrative and breaking it down into smaller segments to understand the emotion that you want to evoke is a prime directive of any good story.
Storytelling has and always will remain on of the most universal human experiences, and the rare chance to look through new lenses, and new perspectives are what makes stories a fundamental tool to enable a more human-centric experience.
You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built in the human plan. We all come with it.