The Story Economy Blog

Find Your Place on the Big Human Story Chain

It’s going to sound, for a minute, like I am writing about religion this week.

But I’m really not.

I’m writing about the traveling of ideas through brains and through time. A tiny little piece of it involves a conversation I had about religion. But only sort of.

So stay with me.

So, remember my four-and-a-half year old? Yeah, he’s getting a lot of airtime lately, I know. Just indulge me one more time.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog that argued that you should be able to strip down and communicate your company’s WHY in such a basic way that even a four-and-a-half year old could easily grasp it.

The very next day, my kid showed me exactly what I was talking about. And then he set me straight on how good ideas work.

But first, let’s back up to Christmas.

For my husband and me, Christmas is, well, rather secular. But now that I have kids, it seems wrong not to acknowledge that there is a whole other thing going on. A missed opportunity, even. My kids should have some sort of something—preferably something that helps them grow up to be good people.

So, as we hung up our first-ever advent calendar this year, I realized that I didn’t have to champion all elements of the Christmas story to share what I found most inspiring about it. Like the idea that a little baby born in a stable grew up to challenge the world around him. I decided I would just focus on that. So, to share with the kids, I picked what I thought were the three most important things about Jesus, just as a person: he helped people who were poor or sick, he tried to make sure everyone was treated equal, and he stood up for people who didn’t have anyone else to stand up for them.

My two-year old is, you know, two. So mostly she wanted to watch The Wiggles. But Max, the four-year-old, was listening, I could tell. We repeated the three things a bunch, and talked about the story a handful of times over the holidays, mostly when we would see manger scenes on people’s lawns.

But after Christmas was over, I admit, I didn’t really think about it a lot. (Yeah, I know. Not great.)

And then last week, we were talking about how he didn’t have school since it was Martin Luther King, Jr. day. Ah, perfect time to tell him about one of the great heroes of the Civil Rights movement.

So, I gave him the preschool-appropriate version, talking about how Martin Luther King worked really, really hard to make sure that everyone was treated equal, and how he wasn’t afraid to stand up for people.

“You mean like Jesus?” Max asked.

I smiled so hard, I almost cried. Because he just saw it. It didn’t even really occur to me in that moment that we were talking about the same idea. But of course we were.

“Yes, Max. In fact, I think that’s exactly who he got his ideas from, ” I said, in the way you say things when you are proud that you’ve just been schooled.

 The Big Human Stories

There are a handful of ideas out there that are just so good and so unwilling to go away, that they float through time, dropping at will into people’s brains. Of course, we often articulate them through the lens of faith or politics or industry. But there is a purity of the idea that transcends all of that.

I think every endeavor that’s worthwhile can be traced to one of these ideas. Yeah, I know it sounds lofty.

But seriously people, why not?

One way to look at this whole thing is through archetypes. As in, those stories that show up over and over again. I call them the Big Human Stories.

So, it’s the underdog who fights for justice and helps overthrow the tyrant, the good-hearted jester who makes everyone laugh, or the unwilling leader who winds up winning the heart of the people.

I don’t have an exact number, but if we trolled all of history, we could probably come up with about a dozen of them. Understanding big ideas as pieces of archetypes drives home the point that these ideas only come to life through stories about people.

There’s actually a good book about how to use archetypes as part of your brand identity, called Archetypes in Branding.

I like the idea that these authors are onto: that you can harness archetypes in your branding. Not in an artificial sense—like you’re not pretending to be a caregiver type if you’re really not. Rather, you’re pulling out the essential story that’s already there.

In the “finding your WHY” newsletter from a few weeks ago, I wrote about how I’m seeing clients really embracing their essential reasons and motivations. This is happening because they’ve decided to focus on it.

But out there in the world at large, I still encounter people who get caught off guard when you ask them to talk about the notion of WHY. That’s because it’s incredibly concrete once you claim it, but incredibly abstract if you haven’t.

And now I realize: The Big Human Story approach is another way in. It might even be YOUR way in.

For example, last week, I was interviewing this doctor as part of a branding project I’m working on for a client. I immediately liked him because he had the quality of sounding real. (I’ve interviewed hundreds of doctors, so I know this is never a given with the M.D. crowd.)

I asked him: So, why are you a doctor anyway?

“Oh wow,” he said. “I haven’t thought about that in a while.”

First, he said the idea of helping people attracted him. But then we talked more about what he does day-to-day. He started telling stories about initiatives he’d worked on. It came up that his real passion is public health.

“I enjoy taking care of individual patients, but I get a bigger satisfaction when I’m involved with programs that support a lot of people. Especially people who might not have access otherwise.”

Now we’re talking about the greater good, about leveling the playing field, about championing the masses. It could go a lot of different ways (and if I was doing a brand for him, we’d really dig in!). But the point is: it’s so much stronger and more specific than just “helping people.” There is a universal story to latch onto there. Bunches of stories already rooted in our brains that it calls to mind. It’s like magic shorthand: “Oh, you’re that guy. I get it.”

Thinking about Big Human Stories is another way to get to the WHY. Because I’ve found that sometimes, “Why do you do what you do?” is the wrong question. I mean, it’s not wrong. It’s just not a productive way in for everyone.

A better question could be: What do you want to latch onto?

And really, once they’re into answering the question, it’s this one: Where are you on the chain of how the idea has played out in human history?

If we look at something like civil disobedience and non-violent protest, we can watch it move with beauty from Jesus to Thoreau to Gandhi to Martin Luther King. And then we can watch the way people today are taking the notion of disruption and using it in other ways that level the playing field and cast off whatever it is that’s oppressing them.

There are places all along Big Human Story chain for anyone to latch on.

But you have to know which story is yours. I mean, I’m completely inspired by civil disobedience, but I know it’s not really mine. I’m not really the agent of change fighting off tyranny.

I’m the storyteller.

And I’m latched.

So, what are you going to latch onto?

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