When I was a child, my parents read to me every night. This started my life long love of literature (and alliteration).
My elementary school was a Montessori school, so I had the same teacher for three years in a class composed of first, second and third graders. Every day after lunch we had a half hour block of time called Silent Reading Time, which was a very apt name. I remember feeling behind the curve when older kids could read books while I struggled. My closest friend at that time was a year older than me, and did something that I don’t think I’ve ever thanked him for. He read to me quietly during those Silent Reading Times and helped me learn. It was the same book every day: The Hound of the Baskervilles. I can still see that book in my minds eye. Once I figured out how to read, it was very hard to stop me.
My parents continued to actively encourage me to read. It helped that my mother worked for book-publishing companies for my entire life: from The Manda Group to Random House, and finally Penguin Random House after the merger. It should be no surprise that the headboard of my childhood bed was a bookshelf, and I would fall asleep with one of my hands resting on the spines of my favourite books. I learned how to surreptitiously read books by flashlight under my covers, long after my parents thought I had gone to sleep.
My love for stories briefly abated during my high school years, when school work and volleyball drew the majority of my attention. Recently I’ve fallen back onto my old habits of devouring books. I supplement my reading with audiobooks from Audible, and I just finished The Everything Store, a book that tells the story of Amazon. It was written in 2013, and does a pretty great job (I think) of covering the company’s rise.
In The Everything Store, I learned that Jeff Bezos asks his employees to write 6 page narratives instead of giving powerpoint presentations. Each meeting begins with everyone sitting quietly and reading these narratives, which are usually presented as press releases for a new feature or whatnot. This is done for many reasons, one of which is to focus everyone on the customer and how they will digest this latest development. It also forces presenters to flesh out their ideas in full sentences, instead of hiding behind bullet point ideas.
I want to make the case that narratives are effective because we are hardwired to create narratives. There’s a concept called The Black Swan, written about in 2007 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which describes an improbable event that has massive consequences. When a Black Swan occurs, we scramble to create a narrative that simplifies these events retrospectively. I believe this is because we are so disposed to the narrative structure that we attempt to fit everything into our story of the world, instead of accurately chalking up a random event to random chance.
Why are naturally disposed to narrative? I think that our brains are hardwired to construct narratives and fit new events into existing story arcs. Narratives are how we make sense of social interactions, and the brain is hardwired to be social.
In The Language Instinct, I read about a study that found that when our minds are “at rest” a certain area of the brain lights up. At first this was hypothesized to be a resting area, but later confirmed to be the same region that is active while we think about relationships. It was discovered while noticing the brain activity of patients in an MRI machine between experiments. When it was discovered that during periods of rest the brain tended to think about social interactions, scientists set out to test the hypothesis: were people actively choosing to dwell on past / future hypothetical social interactions voluntarily, or was this just the default resting setting of all brains. They gave participants a series of math problems and asked them to do these as fast as possible. In between solving each math problem, a time period so short that nobody could possibly actively choose to think about social activities (less than a second), still the same social area of the brain lit up. Our social interactions are contextualized through narratives, which leads to my conclusion that narratives are hardwired into how we think.
When I was actively running Doctor Volleyball, I read a lot about marketing. The biggest take away was instead of focusing on marketing through statistics (eg. Use X and save 34% more), tell a story that frames your customer as the hero. Tell the customer a story, and allow your product to play the role of the helpful tool / advisor that facilitates the hero accomplishing their mission. One book that I read even framed this as the classical Hero’s Journey, which is one of the most famous narrative archetypes.
All of this reinforces my commitment to writing this blog, and developing my own narrative voice.