(Really) Old Lessons in Storytelling for Modern Marketers
by Dan Stefano, on Nov. 5, 2020
The cliched phrase about whether mature, experienced individuals have the capacity to learn fresh skills has it wrong.
Why teach an old dog new tricks? In fact, why aren’t these new dogs listening to what the old ones have to say?
Intergenerational canine debates aside, I’ve always been a fan of history. Check out my bookshelf — right next to 2020 edition of “Contrived Dog Metaphors and Me,” you’ll find tomes on World War II, Renaissance and ancient history.
That’s because no matter where we sit in our modern era — even in the midst of a digital revolution that can fit the pages of all those books into the palm of a hand — the lessons of the past remain valuable. And sometimes, those lessons can come from way back in the day.
Read on for just what we can learn from some (really) old storytellers:
Who was he: A Greek fabulist, or a writer/teller of fables. He likely lived around the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. Importantly, however, we can’t be certain he actually existed, though the big names of antiquity shared details of his life. There are also no existing original written sources for his work, as his tales were passed down by oral tradition for centuries. Regardless, his stories are eternal.
The stories he told: Without original sources, many of Aesop’s most famous fables arguably have other origins as they were adopted and adapted by other cultures.
A common Aesop motif, influencing the scores of fabulists to follow in his footsteps, featured a pair of animals in a brief scene or scenes, with their anthropomorphized dialogue and actions normally resulting in a moral.
For example, in the classic “The Lion and the Mouse,” the former spares the latter from being a meal, and the rodent promises to repay the favor (if deciding not to eat someone is considered a favor). Later, the mouse rescues the lion from a trap by gnawing through rope, showing the small can be heroic and a kindness is never wasted.
One wonders what sparked his creativity, but you get the idea that if the man saw two animals, he could spin a yarn out of it.
Why he matters: Let’s remember one of Aesop’s most famous stories, “The Tortoise and the Hare.” We all recall the ending, as the tortoise pulls the upset in a race against the speedy — and quite unfocused — hare. And we all know the moral: “slow and steady wins the race.”
That phrase has been with us so long, many see it as a truism (even if Olympic sprinters might find some issues with it), and there certainly is wisdom in pacing yourself and ignoring distractions as you work toward a goal. What Aesop did here and in many of his fables is use story to create a shortcut to the lesson. The message lands with a greater impact because it’s wrapped in a memorable tale. Indeed, it’s literally the cliché “moral of the story.”
Using a modern marketer’s lens, Aesop’s fables prove storytelling is an effective means to share a message and make it last in an audience’s mind.
Who was he: The Bard of Avon. England’s most famous playwright. The love-him-or-hate-him subject of countless high school term papers.
William Shakespeare — or Bill, to his friends and those who think they’re witty — is possibly the most famous storyteller in English-speaking circles.
The stories he told: “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Macbeth,” “Othello,” “As You Like it,” “Julius Caesar,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “The Tempest,” “The…” — OK, I think that’s enough.
Shakespeare is credited with at least 37 plays, although the number fluctuates, and it doesn’t include those in which he was a collaborator. Regardless, you’ve heard of at least half of them — not bad for someone who plied his trade over 400 years ago.
Generally, you can break down his oeuvre into three categories: comedies, tragedies and histories. Of course, even his plays with the darkest endings or more chuckles than tears, still borrow from other genres.
Why he matters: With centuries-worth of critiques and scholarship written about his work, hundreds of adaptations in every medium and performing his plays serving as a rite of passage for hundreds of actors, it’s clear his legacy will be with us for as long as humans are entertaining each other. But why the longevity?
He could turn a phrase, absolutely (“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” … Something about “to be or not to be…”). Yet these words are nothing without Shakespeare’s brilliant grasp of emotion.
His stories often were not subtle — Romeo and Juliet are pretty overly dramatic and stereotypical lovestruck teens; if you leave “Othello” not knowing jealousy is bad for you, try to reread it — but they tapped into human experience in the way the best storytellers can. Blend that with some serious creativity — Bill must have been in an interesting place when he wrote “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” — and you have key elements for a memorable story.
Talk to one of us WordWriters long enough, and you might hear some version of “authentic stories move hearts and minds.” Seeing how he wrote fiction, Shakespeare’s stories weren’t exactly authentic — after all, there’s no evidence to prove Julius Caesar ever actually said, “Et Tu, Brute?” But the emotions he could draw from an audience were real enough to move their hearts and keep his plays in minds for the centuries to come.
Who was she: The internet is packed so full of snarky satire, the troves of societal and pop culture takedowns probably require their own fields of servers, just waiting be pollinated by retweets and emojis. Well before this massive commentariat, however, there was Jane Austen — the famed British novelist who had the pulse of the people.
The stories she told: Unlike Shakespeare, whose talent was matched only by the sheer volume of material he produced, Austen made a large impact in a relatively brief period. She published just six major novels, two of which came out after her 1817 death at the age of 41. Her work was enormously significant in the development of the modern novel, though, with tales like “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” hailed for their realism, comic elements and social commentary.
Austen’s frequent target was the “landed gentry,” generally an upper-crust British social class, some of whom had similar wealth and holdings to the nobility, just fewer titles. While her novels frequently had plots involving romance, they were not melodramatic like so many of her contemporaries. Her characters feel like real people, grounded and comedic, and her prose freely sprinkles in their thoughts along with satirical elements and critiques that readers understood and embraced.
They still do, which is why every few years, it seems, Hollywood brings one of Austen’s stories to the big screen (also, celebs just look great in fancy costumes).
Why she matters: Sumptuous production values aside, we keep seeing Jane Austen movies and schools keep teaching her books because the stories are timeless and relatable. Like the underlying messages to Aesop’s fables or Shakespeare’s grasp of emotion, there’s a through line of authenticity to Austen’s stories.
Consumers, prospects and clients can tell when a business genuinely understands their own feelings and needs. Sharing a story rooted in truth that connects their own life experience to the product or service the business is providing can achieve that goal.
Austen could forge those connections, the same way Shakespeare could touch audiences’ hearts and Aesop could change minds. So, the next time you’re looking for storytelling inspiration, don’t forget to look to your elders — the very elder elders.
Looking for more on how to unlock your organization’s authentic business story? Get in touch with the experts at WordWrite.