5 Storytelling Lessons from the History of Humanity

Storytelling has been one of our defining human characteristic, even before we developed oral languages. Signs, marks on the skin, drawings on the sand, were common ways to communicate achievements, the location of water, or the whereabouts of dangerous enemies waiting to ambush their prey.

With time, we have developed sophisticated ways of transforming information into narratives, relaying messages, and conveying images. Today, we thrive to explain ourselves and connect with audiences, looking to inspire them, making them empathize and relate to our experiences.

Join us in this story as we uncover some of our biggest achievements as “storytelling animals”, and learn how to make stories memorable.


Image from the Lascaux Cave depicting a bull

In 1940 in the south of France, an eighteen-years-old boy discovered a system of caves, today known as the Lascaux Caves. Within these dark caves, walls exhibit ancient paintings of animals, human figures, and abstract signs — many of which appear to be in motion. These paintings are estimated to be 17,300 years old.

In 1994, another magnificent set of caves was discovered in Chauvet, France, with surviving images dating from up to 32,000 years ago. Despite their age, we can instantly recognize what is depicted in them.

Lions hunting cattle from the Chauvet Cave – France

Our ancestors, a.k.a. “The Cavemen”, used the power of visual imagery to convey stories of their everyday life: scenes of hunting, herding, and even humans being killed by animals. Their paintings narrate how they catalogued predators and documented the animals’ mating season. They are a vivid testimony of their struggle to survive.

These images also show how visual storytelling has a universal appeal. Even if we no longer hunt nor depend on mating seasons, we can relate to these pictures as we immediately recognize the objects in them. This is the result of familiarity, a cognitive process that involves memory and specific areas of the brain. Familiarity is developed by associating ideas to recognizable images, and lets the brain remember the information carried by the narrative.

The Caveman Lesson

Use familiar images. Pick visuals that your audience can relate to, and pair them with your message. Your audience will understand it and remember it vividly.


Egyptian & Mayan hieroglyphics

Mayans and Egyptians developed sophisticated pictorial languages that allowed them to visualize and communicate complex information. Thousands of years ago, these civilizations were designing the precursor of our modern infographics and data visualizations.

Aztec Calendar
Aztec Calendar depicting solar, lunar and agricultural events.

These graphical representations, often carved in stone and bones, include large amounts of vital data such as the size of crops, harvest times, number of slaves, origin of materials, and the dates for solar and lunar eclipses. They also communicate information relevant to their religious, agricultural, architectonic, social and economic practices. Life, and success as a society, depended on the clarity and effectiveness of these communications.

Meso-American calendars and ancient Egyptian “book-keeping” techniques also teach us that communicating large amounts of information can be done efficiently with visuals. In the modern times of the Homo Interneticus, infographics are an effective way to tell a story and get the message across in a memorable manner.

The Mummy Lesson

Present your hard data using infographics while threading a compelling story. Combine this with the Caveman Lesson: use familiar images and your audience will understand and relate to your message, and most importantly, remember it. Here are some great examples you can get inspired from.


Illuminated letter “P” in the Malmesbury Bible

Prophets, Saints and God’s Envoys to earth were very successful in relaying their message to their immediate audiences. Jesus’ apostles, for example, managed to compile and organize his teaching into gospels that went on to form parts of the Catholic Bible. All the so-called Sacred Books were crafted by master storytellers, following long lineages of oral tradition where stories were verbally relayed from fathers to sons and from mothers to daughters. These stories were polished and re-told over the centuries before finding their way to stones, parchments, and eventually paper. 

The stories in these magnificent books left teachings and rules many still live by, and also provided clear Storytelling lessons that can be learned and practiced by everyone:

  • Internalize your Story, don’t just memorize it: oral storytelling traditions rely on the memorization of storylines. Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and even Harry Potter fans can summarize and tell the main stories from their own sacred books. Use this to your advantage: the better you know the story, the more compelling your storytelling will be. Believe in your story, internalize its meaning and words will just start flowing — your own words.

Vedic Chants are stories that have been memorized and transmitted mainly orally throughout the millennia.

  • Use Shared Stories and Memories: The Flood myth is present in almost every civilization, from Mesopotamia to the Jewish Bible/Old Testament, to Mayan and Australian aboriginal cosmogonies. Well-known stories provide a great opportunity for emotional engagement as many people relate to them. Hollywood knows this well and has been exploiting it for decades: Ben Hur, Armageddon, Exodus, Noah, etc., are just examples of stories that tap into the collective consciousness. They are stories that people easily relate to, covering topics such as love, the struggle for survival, and choosing between good and evil. Use this to your benefit: find shared stories that your audience can relate to, and repurpose them.

The Noah and the Ark story is a great example of Storytelling (Who said it had to be realistic?)

The God Almighty Lesson

Build narratives around things that you know and use shared and common examples so your audience can relate. Use repetition when you cannot use images and do so in subtle ways, introducing slight variations each time. Then re-write, re-write, and re-write once again…


Charles H Bennett Illustration for the Fables of Aesop and Others Translated into Human Nature

Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents or teachers read you stories? Enchanted by the narrative, you would have never guessed how long ago these stories were born.

Aesop Fables were written about 2600 years ago and made their way into contemporary popular culture with translations in every possible language. A French Revolution revival followed with Jean de La Fontaine, then a Victorian revival, and not too long ago Disney’s version, in Technicolor™!

Disney’s version of Aedip’s The Tortoise and the Hare

How did these stories manage to survive for so long? They were crafted as narratives of guidance, ways to cope with life. They are stories of birth, disease, love, hate, greed, pride, rage, justice and even death. And they always carried a strong moral — short lessons that summarized the value proposition of the tale, making it memorable.

Here are a few lessons that storytellers can learn from them:

  • Write Capsule-Sized Content: Fables are very short stories — they go straight to the point. They use exaggeration and hyperboles of both their characters and the settings. They present conflicting situations and highlight differences: a Lion VS a Mouse or a Tortoise VS a Hare on a racetrack. As Frank Hellemans, from the Philosophical Society of England defines it:

Fables and myths alike are a short and condensed way of storytelling. The characters are exaggerated and bigger than life: heroes are typical of the first fables or myths that were written down, like the Gilgamesh epic, Homer¹s Iliad (circa 800 BCE) or the Bible (the oldest Hebrew manuscripts which are usually dated to circa 200 BCE). (…) Aesop, writing in the sixth century BCE, told powerful, exemplary stories featuring all kinds of peculiar animals. He usually did so by contrasting distinctive characteristics of two species. He opposed the speedy hare to the slowly moving tortoise, or the cunning mouse to the not-so-cunning though physically strong lion. This binary opposition of elements was also typical of the agonistic (striving to present an argument) worldview of premodern societies (…)

  • Create a clear Value Proposition: With Fables, you always learn something. The moral of the story is the core of the message and what makes you better at whatever you do. Aesop, Voltaire and Kafka knew that the best stories teach you lessons — but with subtlety. German philosopher Günther Anders, puts it this way:

It is painful to have to explain fables . . . They are explanations of themselves. And of better quality than all others, for they are at the same time warnings.

Most fabulists used examples coming from their own personal experience as a way to present problems and solutions in one concise but beautiful human creation.

The Fabulist Lesson

Be concise. Make your story self-explanatory, and don’t give all the answers. Never underestimate your audience’s intelligence: provide value, guide them, and let them come to their own conclusions.


A detail of the newly discovered portrait believed to be of William Shakespeare.

Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Those are the elements of Storytelling that William Shakespeare mastered to perfection and that many still try to emulate, from modern novelists to advertisers and marketers.

Keith A. Quesenberry, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, recently revealed results from a two-year study. These results show that audiences are more attracted to ads with dramatic plots than ones without clear stories and narrative arcs. In his own words:

People think it’s all about sex or humor or animals but what we’ve found is that the underbelly of a great commercial is whether it tells a story or not.

There are many lessons to be learned from Shakespearean literature — here are the most important ones:

  • Create a narrative arc by following the rules to create a plot: The main reason for Shakespeare’s success is the mastering of what we know today as the Plot. Gustav Freytag analyzed and dissected this and came up with the Freytag Pyramid, in which he separated the parts of a story into the following:
Freytag Pyramid: Click on the image to learn more
Freytag Pyramid: Click on the image to learn more.

There are 7 types of plots and all of them follow this structure. Whichever plot you choose, make sure you take your audience through the Exposition, where you set the scene. The Inciting Incident, where something triggers the action. The Rising Action, where your story starts to build up and getting exciting. The Climax, yes… just like in sex, is the moment of highest tension and excitement. The Falling Action, which is direct consequence of the Climax and signals that your story is coming to an end. The Resolution, where the conflict or problem gets solved and the Dénouement, which uncovers details or actions that were hidden until now…

  • Know your audience from the very beginning: Shakespeare was very strategic: he targeted a very diverse audience: aristocrats, politicians, educated upper classes, as well as illiterate and lowbrow poor classes. By mastering the use of the language, he delivered puns and subtle innuendos that could be read and understood by the more highbrow public. But these puns ran along clear and well-defined storylines that anyone could follow.

The Bard’s Lesson

Plan your story and give it a clear plot with a well defined arc — it will keep your audience engaged. Know your audience and make sure your story uses the right voice, style and language.

Looking Ahead

As we write these words, more than three thousand million humans are using the internet. Each one of them has access to a collective audience that is virtually infinite — and you are one of them. Combine this collective platform with the power of storytelling and you have the ability to stand out in a world with more information than we can ever consume, and even make an impact that lasts for centuries.

In George Lucas’ words: 

“People trained in Storytelling would be more independent thinkers, more critical thinkers, more logical thinkers. And they would be better equipped for a world that is completely overwhelmed with information.”  — George Lucas

What stories will you be creating today?


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    January 31

    Posted in Arts+Culture

    Tagged marketing, advertising, super bowl, center for leadership education · Jan. 31, 2014 · The Hub

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