By Kelsey Boudin
President and Founder, Southern Tier Communications Strategies, LLC
Let’s go back 25,000 years. You’re sitting in a cave. Warmth from a fire draws you closer out of the cool, damp air. Hues of tangerine and marigold bounce off the walls and radiate around you. A man, muddy and unkempt, sporting bruises and cuts, grunts in some simplistic language to an audience of a few other men and women gathered around the fire. A pair of children dance nearby.
At first you have no clue what the caveman is saying. Yet, his brutish gestures and guttural intonations render you spellbound.
Then, as if a veil is pulled away, you can comprehend it all.
The caveman hunches his shoulders and makes himself look big and lumbers around the cavern. The kids laugh and mimic his behavior.
It’s a bear! you realize.
He snarls and lifts up, puffing out his chest, spit dripping from the corners of his mouth. He gestures what looks like a powerful downward blow and falls to the ground, pointing out the nasty gashes across his left arm, crusted with blood.
There was a fight, you understand.
He hops up quickly and grabs a stick, thrusting it over the fire several times and thrashing it wildly before several more thrusts. He sits, exhausted and panting. He points to the east. His listeners, mouths agape, look out of the cave and into the woods that direction. A woman, presumably his partner, kneels beside him and begins nursing his wounds. The children look on in wonderment at the grotesque wounds and admiration at the man’s bravery. You rush to the woman’s side and to help.
So what happened in this scene? Effective communication that drives our lives today.
The man had a story to tell. He told it well, in his own special way.
His audience? The cave people he loves. His tale of fearlessness and survival was cautionary. The caveman told them the direction in which he faced the danger. He told them how he fought it off, in effect telling them to prepare to use lethal force should they enter a fight for their lives. For his partner, understanding the story from a loving standpoint, the story prompted her to take action and heal his injuries. Remember, you even jumped into action upon witnessing the caveman recounting his struggle. And you don’t even speak his language, however primitive it may be. For the children, the story likely inspired awe, intended or not, at the man’s strength and resourcefulness. Maybe they felt more empowered to fight off the things that scare them.
Time passed, as happens, and we find ourselves here today, millennia later, using many of those same tactics in our storytelling. We stand on the shoulders of every human ever who passed folklore through generations, symbols on pottery to convey ownership, hieroglyphics on tombs to guide the afterlife, words on scrolls to enact law, and prose on paper to entertain.
Early humans harnessed fire some 400,000 years ago. Communications experts reasonably believe storytelling began there. It became a pastime as fire could extend the day beyond the dark. They could entertain and inform. And each subsequent generation relayed the meanings and trials of life, as they understood them, to the next. From the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE, credited as the earliest surviving true work of literature) to the printing press (c. 1440, Gutenberg) to Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (1690, first multipage American newspaper) to Twitter (2006), humans looked to create communications and optimize their distribution.
Today? The written word is far from dead. We can’t escape the onslaught of messaging in all our waking hours — more if you’re frequently or always connected to your smartphone. Effective communication drives the world we live in. How else would we get the news to inform (or some may say misinform) our lives? Organizational public relations? Grant proposals to funders? Content marketing to help consumers? Books for enlightenment? Social networking? Interpersonal relationships?
Whatever the form, a source seeks to tell and the recipient seeks to understand. Yes, today there are more media forms than ever before serving even more purposes. At our core, communicators now still serve the same basic purposes as our friends back in the cave. “We all have a story to tell. Let’s tell it well.”