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The Storytelling Ape

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the role language might have played in shaping us (Homo sapiens), the only surviving genus of the human species today. Now, I will look at an important aspect of how we use language (and how it shapes who we are): storytelling.

Stories are a huge part of our past and present. Whether it’s around the dinner table or the campfire, on stage or on screen, we are always exchanging and being compelled by them. Whether they are factual or not often has little correlation with their success in being perpetrated. Yuval Noah Harari points out that “[the] ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language… it has enabled us not only to imagine things, but to do so collectively.” What matters is that they are told well, fit a clear narrative, and inspire strong emotions. This isn’t a distant feature of our remote past – today, humans cooperate more than at any time in our history, and our minds are still shaped by stories.

Harari goes on: “telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.”

A prism for stories
Storytelling not only defines how humans cooperate, it is also a fundamental facet of our individual psychologies. It is as if our minds are prisms that refract a fragmented reality into a coherent story in order to process it. This tendency even affects our well-being. One study found that asking people with depression to sit down and write out their life stories every day helped increase their mood substantially. And as the field of behavioural psychology has grown, our cognitive glitches and peculiarities have become clearer, revealing that our minds often rely on things other than facts to sense of the world. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the Linda Test is a great way to demonstrate this:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Most people –by a significant margin- guess that the second answer is correct. I certainly did. However, the correct answer is actually the first one. Why? Because in this scenario adding information to Linda simply being a bank teller reduces the second choice’s probability of being correct. This was termed the conjunction fallacy by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It not only shows us that we don’t intuitively grasp basic statistics (even a majority of statistics students failed this test!), it also shows us how important stories are to our psychology. The details added to the scenario add to our confidence that it is true. (Perhaps this reflects gossip, and how more details added to an account can increase the impression that the gossiper really knows what they are talking about.)

‘Associative machines’ 
Another important element of storytelling is the choice of words used. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman discusses (amongst other subjects) how our minds are “associative machines”. He gives the example of reading the following two words:

Banana                                                   Vomit

When we see these random two words, a surge of thoughts and feelings appear, as we immediately link them as a cause and effect. As Kahneman points out: “This complex constellation of responses occurred quickly, automatically, and effortlessly. You did not will it and you could not stop it.” The reason for this is that they are associatively coherent. Even though most of us have never heard of someone vomiting after eating bananas, the mere thought of it and the associated negative sensations make it seem realistic. And even though our logic understands this is what is happening, most of us are temporarily put off eating bananas.

This is an important point to remember when going into business in a new culture and language. If your intention is to gain a favourable impression with your new audience, the right choice of words when telling your brand’s story is crucial. In China, for example, words are made up of characters which are usually also used in other words with different meanings. For example, the pronunciation of the company name “O2” in English sounds similar to the word “呕吐” (“Ǒutù” – to vomit) in Chinese. So even if this company used different characters, going into China with a name that sounded similar to their English language one would always be risky! (Note: this is an invented example!) On the other hand, Coca Cola’s Chinese brand name, “可口可乐” (‘Kěkǒukělè), is not only is a homonym, but also uses words with very positive associations: the word for ‘tasty’ (‘Kěkǒu’, the first two characters) and happiness (‘lè’, the final character).

Looking backwards whilst flying forwards
Another feature of our storytelling brains is how we process the past. In the century before last, Soren Kirkegaard wrote: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” But is the past really always understood objectively? Nowadays, Kirkegaard’s words look like they are simply describing what Nassim Taleb described as the narrative fallacy – the illusion that we use to make sense of why events happened as they did. As Kahneman points out: “The world makes much less sense than you think. The coherence comes mostly from the way your mind words.”

Getting it right 
Storytelling is universal. We can tell you, for example, that it is as important to Chinese consumers as it is Western ones. When you are re-branding to market to China, the ability to tell your company’s story -and tell it well- is essential. This is where we can help you. We can not only work with you to translate your brand’s name into Chinese (giving you multiple options with explanations of the characters we use and their meanings and associations), we can also ensure that your material is elegantly conveyed and localised for China. Thereafter, your chances of one day having a good story to tell about your success in China will be considerably increased.

Further Reading: 
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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