Street artist and art prank-master Banksy was surely onto something when he snuck this curious object into the British Museum and hung it on the wall. He was certainly onto the fact that we haven't changed all that much since our cave-dwelling days, well except that the method of our hunting and gathering sure seems to have changed and not necessarily for the better. To me, Banksy’s work also says something else about the parallel between the cave paintings of our past and the culture we inhabit today; something a little more problematic for me. It has to do with the nature and use of our caves, about how we tell our stories.
When people ask me what’s the most important part of story, I give a simple answer, the audience, the end-user of that story. Why? Simple. Since the dawn of what we call culture, story has always been the most valuable commodity we humans have ever had to trade. Of all the things we need like food, shelter and water, story is the only thing that can be traded into the future to increase the chances of food, shelter and water. That’s partly why early humans painted on cave walls, that’s what oral traditions were all about. Everything is story, even DNA. In a purely Darwinian sense, a mother animal who nudges her young even if merely instinctually, to hunt and defend and when to run, is imparting story. Sure you can argue that some oral traditions were meant to serve certain communities over others. You can argue that many cave paintings were just an artist leaving something behind of themselves. But the ones that stood the test of time did so, because they were deeply and humanly useful stories.
As Banksy reveals to us in his humorous way, even today, in this commercial landscape, what story stands for hasn’t changed at all, only how it’s used. Think about that for moment. Today, story is used like a resource to move other commodities. That’s not inherently evil mind you, but it can be pretty shitty because it puts the end-user of a story in the position of being less important than the commoditized value of the story. Pardon me, but where’s the f*ckin service in that? Anthropologically and in fact, commercially, story works best when it honors its ancient origins - it enlightens, inspires and conveys vital life information that enables us to better prosper, better work together, better ourselves and better those that we touch and those that come after us. But selling stories and selling things using stories is just the reality of things isn't it? Sure, but still, it misses the true power of story. It’s the value of what goes on that cave wall for present and future generations that actually elevates all else, including the system that marginalizes story by turning it into product. Ok, wait, absorb that for a moment - it’s a big statement.
Now, let me explain. Looking at this from the present-day commercial side for a moment, according to therichest.com, the top 5 book genres are in order: romance, crime, spiritual/inspirational, fantasy/sci-fi, and then horror. Hmmmm, for the sake of discussion, let’s translate that into love and procreation, survival, search for purpose and meaning, dreams, empowerment, and dealing with the things we fear. Wow, that’s totally super cave wall stuff!
Now, a company looks at this driven by profit and declares, we need more of..(fill in one of the above genres). Then, they seek out books to option, creators from certain genres but there’s no regard for the end user and specifically why a story will be useful to them. Instead, it’s about hedging bets, maximizing profit and feeding a brand and the stockholders. Now, that’s not exactly Sith Lord-ish but it is kind of evil Empire-ish. End users are not there to serve the brand, they ARE the brand, the tribe, the people whose survival enables the companies and brands to live on the trading floor, find food and shelter of their own, in short, the story the people can actually use, provides for the commercial edifice to survive. Again, the end user creates the brand by approving the service. Don’t believe me? Every great ad sells you a story before selling you a product. Sports has become story, news has become less of a report than it’s become a slant on a story.
And here’s how valuable selling story is in a social media version. Think about what a company like Facebook does with your timeline? Your, if you will, personal cave-wall story? They sell it to others to help them figure out how to sell you more things. WTF!?!? So, let me get this straight, we use our story to share and inform and talk about what matters and what does Facebook do? Share what matters? Collect a repository of great things we can learn from our community on Facebook? Nope! They sell us and our information and story to somebody else and make money off us - and if we don’t tell enough story, their AI makes one up for us from our posts and pictures. You think they’re being nice and helping? Nope again. If we “like” what they did, it only teaches their AI how accurate their profile is of us, more accurate? more valuable to sell!
Meanwhile, what ultimately sells (and what brought us to Facebook originally, well, if we were there in the early years, were internally human things. We wanted to connect and learn, share and be part of a community. We wanted to belong and feel empowered. A former business partner and I coined a phrase that I use to this day, “It’s not what you sell to your audience that makes your story a success, it’s what they can take away for free.” That is the foundational cornerstone of story. We didn’t charge admission to our caves did we? Facebook was built on what you got for free, now, it’s built on what you give them for free that they can sell.
But people love their Facebook walls Rob, they thrive on their Instagram and Pinterest and get all their important stories from them. Yes! Free stories! Story as a service! So, let Facebook do what they want you might say, we get the service. Really? Ok, so how does this relate to the use of story for everything except what story was intended for? It relates because there is a huge disconnect here that only story can change! They key is what motivated cave wall drawings in the first place and what truly motivates us and why story is important to us. In Eric Barker’s fabulous blog, Barking up the Wrong Tree, bakadesuyo.com, Barker uses the latest in scientific research to examine how to live a better life and a lot of things I find are very appropriate here.
In one blog about happiness and motivation, Barker cites Harvard research that shows that while money and bragging rights and social popularity make us happy, periods of happiness brought by external things is a fleeting drug-like experience that leaves us craving and needing more. Wow, that’s great for business a good financier would say! But wait, turns out, happiness is very short term and what lasts is something called “elevation”, the idea of making a difference and advancing to a higher level of self-actualization. Wow, that might actually be better for business! Well, that’s part of my damn point!
Elevation actually changes people. Great works of story are things we remember our whole lives. They become ingrained as part of our own story. Think about the greatest stories in our culture, they are empowering, about making a difference and self actualizing. Yes, some just make you happy but do you remember them the rest of your life? There are increasing numbers of studies that point out that the more we do good, the more good we become. Eric Barker also cites Elizabeth Dunn’s book “Happy Money” which points to lots of research that shows, “by the end of the day, individuals who spent money on others were measurably happier than those who spent money on themselves…” Ok, stop and think about this again. Great story, great purpose, better end user experience, feels like better value, worth more money. That’s what the best stories all talk about. That’s what the best brands do. They elevate you to a better experience and a view of a better you. They don’t push genre at you for the genre’s sake. They put something on the wall of lasting value.
Need more? Well, according to Forbes, the 5 highest grossing entertainment franchises of all time are in order, The Marvel Universe, Harry Potter, Star Wars, James Bond and Batman. Gee, all heroes, who become selfless kinda folks who are human and flawed for sure, but all struggling to find the magic, the force and the powers to make a difference in the world and self actualize. Oh, we talked genres of books before, but you know what types of books outsell all others combined? Kids books, that’s um, stories about empowerment, self actualization, finding your way and making a difference.
So what’s my ultimate point? What’s my, uh, story? Well, as I said before, the whole story! In today’s culture, in addition to thinking about the quality and usefulness of your story, you also have to look at ways to make your story more accessible to multiple caves and people for it to be truly successful. In a sense, you have to game the system that lays in waiting to exploit your story for commercial profit. That gift you add to story, actually makes it more valuable to the commercial landscape and therefore easier to spread and market but better still, it elevates the culture by providing something of far more lasting value.
Simply put, commerce is necessary, but unless your story is made for the end users first, you’re doing nobody a service! So, when crafting our cave drawings, we can think about the people who’ll use them and why. What is their age, their social structure, their underlying psychology? What are their important issues, hopes, fears and dreams? What are they struggling with? We can craft our stories not as a lesson to them but as a lesson about them and what they need from story that helps them tell and live their own. Can we think of archetypes and personality types in our story that relate to our end users? Does our story really reflect the really important day to day things that we all struggle with. Those are what matter most, thats what resonates on the cave wall.
Storytellers, this is your responsibility and it’s your power. The better your story is built to touch others in their caves, the more a gift it is, the more it actually will work in the commercial space and drive good commerce by doing good. Think down the road. The next time you sit down to tell a story, think about all the people that are to be empowered by it, inspired by it and yes, after that, who will spend the resources to help you tell it and who makes money off it. Remember, how you craft the message can feed them too, and done right, better disseminate by your creative efforts, a more lasting and lucrative message. Try, and always remember this: that like the people who came to see and learn from the cave drawings, traveled and sat to hear oral traditions and to seek old scrolls and lost knowledge, it’s what people can do with your story that matters more than what you and the companies that market story can make of it. It’s not what you sell your audience that makes your story a success, it’s what they can take away for free.
Rob Travalino said of "Born", "What attracted me to the project initially was the sheer humanity of it. Michal's wonderful characters all come from different places in terms of pasts, biases, genders and orientation, yet the story does this magical job of stripping all of those things away in a riveting and inclusive way. No matter how you come it, no matter what you bring into the piece in terms of the ways you may have been taught in your life or by aspects of culture and society to focus on differences, "Born" unites us in a very precious way, by shining its light into the place where we all share the same sometimes painful and self-conscious human experiences and ultimately, where we all share the same beautiful ones too. The great truth of "Born" is that all of those people you think are different from you, are you. I'm truly proud and grateful to be a part of it."
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