Virgin Group founder Richard Branson says the best ideas for taking his company into the future are found when he’s practicing the ancient custom of storytelling by a campfire. “Telling a story is one of the best ways we have of coming up with new ideas, and also of learning about each other and our world. It’s been happening since humans first inhabited the earth,” says Branson.
Storytelling, says Branson, is one of the secrets to building a “knock-out brand.” Branson is so fond of storytelling around a campfire as a creative tool that he commissioned a local artist to build a beautiful hand-carved “fireball” for his team to gather around.
Storytelling appeals to Richard Branson because it’s part of our DNA. We are wired for story. It all started when humans gained control of fire 400,000 years ago. Anthropologists point to fire as the spark that ignited human evolution. It makes sense because once our ancestors gained control of fire they could cook food, which radically increased the size of human brains. Fire also warded off predators at night, another positive if you wanted to live to see another day. Until recently, however, few scientists studied one of the most profound benefits of fire—sparking our imagination through storytelling.
In her groundbreaking research Embers of Society, University of Utah anthropology professor Polly Wiessner concludes that storytelling may have made up 80% of the fireside conversations of our ancient ancestors. Firelight by campfire extended the day, providing more time for purposes other than hunting and gathering. As people shared their personal experiences around the fire, they learned to avoid danger, to hunt more effectively as a team, and to strengthen cultural traditions.
“Stories told by firelight put listeners on the same emotional wavelength, elicited understanding, trust, and sympathy, and built positive reputations for qualities like humor, congeniality, and innovation,” says Wiessner. “Through stories and discussions people collected experiences of others and accumulated knowledge of options that others had tried.”
Wiessner says “appetites” for fire-lit settings remain with us to this day. Modern technologies like Skype, FaceTime and videoconferencing products are simply twenty-first century attempts at replicating the campfire across distances. As the equipment improves and technology steps out of the way, we’re left with old fashioned face-to-face storytelling. And those who are good at it will stand out.
Remarkably, the same communication skills that our ancestors admired in their leaders are the same qualities we look for today. Listeners want to be engaged and entertained and that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. Wiessner believes good storytellers were cherished for their verbal skills, including humor: “Stories provided a win-win situation: those who thoroughly engaged others were likely to gain recognition as their stories traveled. Those who listened were entertained while collecting the experiences of others with no direct cost.”
Since storytelling is part of who we are as humans, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the world’s most inspiring leaders value the art of story as a communication tool. “If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you also have to be a storyteller,” says Richard Branson. “I have always loved stories, whether reading books, hearing tall tales from friends or listening to words of wisdom from my parents. Ever since I started in business with Student Magazine, I have been fascinated by the intersection between storytelling and entrepreneurship.”
Mastering the art of storytelling is your most powerful weapon in the war of ideas. Sharpening your storytelling skills can help you stand out in a job interview, deliver a more effective presentation, motivate teams, inspire evangelists, and build a lasting brand. All you need is a campfire.
Forbes.com column original post