Nearly every hour of your waking life is now spent consuming stories. The Nielsen media consumption metrics for the first quarter of 2020 found American consumers now clock over 12 hours of media each day, a record high. Whether the media type is television, social media, podcasts, or other apps, the one thing these vehicles for content have in common is that they tell stories.
Stories capture and hold our attention, and with the attention economy only growing in size, storytelling is a wise messaging vehicle. The inscription on my bottle of mezcal tells a story. The imagery on pamphlets I receive in the mail tells a story. The bread I buy to make my toast each morning is made by former convicts to encourage job security post-incarceration — another story.
Stories tap into our innate curiosity for human behavior. So when Bill Gates met Warren Buffett for the first time in 1991 and asked him what his favorite book was, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Buffett’s recommendation was a collection of stories.
“I’ll lend you my copy,” Buffett said. In a blog post written 20 years later, Gates joked that he still has the book in case Buffett wants it back.
The book that enthralled two titans in the business space above all others was a collection of stories from longtime New Yorker contributor John Brooks entitled Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street.
Why stories capture our attention
Business Adventures tells a dozen stories from mid-20th-century commerce in a prosaic, character-driven style; it’s actually a collection of stories from past issues of The New Yorker.
And if we look to recent blockbuster content created in the last few decades and focused on business — Succession, Mad Men, and Shark Tank, to name a few — a common centerpiece is an effective storytelling.
That’s because stories elicit emotion, and research has shown emotion embeds memories more deeply in our minds. If you want your message to stick, leverage psychology, and elicit emotion in some way.
Of course, Gates and Buffett love this book — it’s about business, but told through story. As Gates describes in a blog post, many of the particulars of business have changed, but the fundamentals have not.
Learn from past business opportunities
Gates’ insights are interesting considering that one of the cautionary tales references advantages and opportunities found by, among many other businesses, Microsoft. Here are some of Business Adventures’ most popular parables:
- Xerox’s innovation faux-pas, in which the company extensively funded Ethernet research in the 1970s, opening the door for other companies to run to the front and capitalize on the opportunity.
- The launch of the Ford Edsel, a cautionary tale about the timeliness of customer research, the importance of product quality, and the shifting desires of markets.
- Insider trading, which shares the story of how insider trading laws became more strictly enforced following a 1959 exposé of corruption at Texas Gulf Sulphur amidst exploding investor gains.
Sharpening your business acumen doesn’t have to be a boring affair. Look at what past organizations have encountered, and you’ll find stories of the human condition to be a common denominator — and information you can use to achieve your own competitive advantage.
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