Once Upon a Narrative — A Case for Storytelling

Jéan Raath
Jul 14 · 6 min read
Photo by Robyn Budlender on Unsplash

“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen” — Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

My two-year-old son is a big fan of Maurice Sendak’s illustrated books. He has this sparkle in his eyes and gets all excited when he points at the bookshelf shouting “Max, Max” every night. I can recount similar experiences when I look at my own pile of worn-down paperbacks.

Stories have played a quiet but crucial role in my life — in all of our lives.

I only realized it much later but looking back now I can clearly see the ripple on the water. Holidays spent building all sorts of unsafe rafts and tree-houses; Late nights in the street pretending to be Die Swartkat; backpacking Europe and my deep love for Hip-Hop.

The influence of story is found all around in film, books, religion, music, architecture, art and enterprise. Why is that? Why are stories and storytelling such an intrinsic part of our society and culture? Why are we so easily attracted to them? More importantly, why should we care?

Carving out our past


It is estimated that the Chauvet cave in France has drawings that date back 30,000 years! The walls are covered with animals such as deer, bison and lions and tell the stories of human endeavour and survival. The same is true for the El Castillo caves along northern Spain’s Cantabrian Sea coast. Etched into the rock is a primitive record detailing daily life, hunting rituals, the exploitation and use of natural resources and a long etcetera.

Fast forward to 700 B.C along the modern-day Turkish–Syrian and Iran–Iraq borders and we find the first printed story. The Epic of Gilgamesh recounts the life and times of the semi-mythic King of Uruk in Mesopotamia and is considered to be one of the earliest surviving works of literature.

From the hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt to the oral traditions of the Cherokee. From myth and folklore to written words formed into complex narratives.

Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years!

Human Nature 101

Storytelling, whether fable or factual, seems to be an intrinsic human characteristic.

To remember valiant deeds, great battles and the horror of war stories emerged as a way to preserve the emotions and events in our past. The way we communicate with others may have changed drastically over time but there’s no doubt that we’re still naturally wired for narrative.

Sharing life with others — an exchange most of us learn to negotiate in infancy

There’s some great research in the fields of neuroscience and anthropology on this topic and the discoveries they’ve made are quite literally mind-blowing! Daniel Smith’s study on the Agta, Jonathan Gottschall’s incredible thesis or even the work and findings of author Kristen Lamb all point to the same conclusion:

Stories enable connection and interaction.

They’re recognizable patterns in which we find meaning. More importantly, stories help us make sense of our world and allow us to share that understanding with others.

According to Gottshall, we are perhaps the only “animals” that create and tell stories in the way we do and it’s a gamechanger.

A (Business) Case for Story

It’s easy to see why storytelling has become a theme for everyone and anyone looking to “sell” a better product or service. When you type ‘business storytelling’ into Google these days you’ll get more than a million search results in less than a second. Articles, blog posts and videos outline tips and techniques on how to “pull people in”, “build a brand that inspires trust” and “convince consumers to buy from you”.

Where life happens for most of us these days

The world’s biggest social media platforms have seen explosive growth on their ‘Stories’ format with Instagram reporting an expected ad revenue of 6,84 billion dollars for 2018. The platform’s active story users hit 150 million by February 2017 and triggered a rollout of the feature across all Facebook products. Within 30 days Facebook Messenger Day, Facebook Stories and WhatsApp Status were released as new story channels and currently boast DAU (daily active user) figures in excess of 400 million.

It’s safe to say that stories are a force to be reckoned with. You may not always agree with the way it’s being used — I certainly don’t — but ignoring its (financial) impact is done at your own peril.

Attention equals money and stories have become a strategic tool in a world held to ransom by the paradox of choice.

“We are searchlights, we can see in the dark. We are rockets, pointed up at the stars.” — Pink, What About Us

The world’s a crazy place at the moment — exciting and full of opportunity but also scary. More than half of the conversations or meetings I sit in on these days are centred around digital transformation, big data and what the future will look like when artificial intelligence and machine learning truly come to fruition.

Drastic and constant change has become a given and with it, there’s an expectation that we need to keep up or get out. New methodologies, tech stacks and toolsets will come and go and it’s impossible to equip yourself with all of them!

So what do we do?

Focus on skills and approaches that are timeless.

Photo by Kevin Erdvig on Unsplash

My dad was a formidable storyteller. Growing up, some of my best memories happened around a fire of some sort listening to him recount deeds from the “old days”. So, when he passed away a few years ago, stories became a big theme for me.

I’ve always found great joy in learning from everyday things and was suddenly intrigued by the magic of narrative and how key concepts from it could be applied to my industry and professional skillset.

There’s a simplicity in extracting a set of universal principles from seemingly unrelated domains and applying them in a different context and that’s exactly what I set out to do.

For the past year, I’ve been experimenting with these ideas in an attempt to extract key concepts or teachings from the world of story and narrative.

There’s certainly enough evidence to make a case for its impact on our lives but how can we apply some of this secret sauce in a practical manner? How can we leverage this natural ‘compatibility’ to drive change and help unlock value delivery?

In a world where people are bombarded with information, options and content feeds, we need ways to cut through all the noise. What truly makes people look up and pay attention?

In my presentation “Campfire BA: Storytelling as a Strategic Enabler” I dig into these and other questions in the hope of sharing some of my insights. Join me at the #BusinessAnalysis Conference in London, 23–25 September 2019 and let’s find the answers together!

If you can’t make it out, don’t worry. I will do an extensive write-up post-conference so keep an eye on my socials and feel free to reach out if you have any thoughts!

Jéan Raath

Written by

Analysis + Product Professional⚡️ Football Obsessive ⚽ I ❤️making average things better! @raathel on Twitter

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