• Lucas North

What businesses can learn from the Gruffalo

Updated: May 22, 2020

Photo: Joshua Sortino/ Unsplash


The pandemic may be to blame for me knowing nothing about this until I stumbled upon it last night on the World Book Day site.

It’s a shame that there is less to promote about it because of the lockdown. If not for social distancing, families would be gathering as part of the annual celebration. Children would be sitting next to each other on floor cushions, captivated by professional storytellers.

Now, they’ll have to get their storytelling kicks on Zoom to feed their insatiable hunger for stories.

What does this have to do with modern businesses? And where does the Gruffalo come into it?

Before we answer those questions, we need to understand why we tell stories in the first place.

Why we need stories

There are many different expert views about how long we’ve been sharing stories. Some argue that it really began with the invention of writing, around 5,000 years ago.

But narratives have been central to human existence far longer. Cave paintings in sites like Chauvet and Lascaux in France are thought to pre-date the invention of writing by around 25,000 years. The caves’ paintings, mainly depicting animals, human forms and symbols, were, many experts agree, probably accompanied by some form of oral storytelling.

Life-changing stories

We can only imagine what exact form those stories would have taken. But it's logical to think at least some of them would have been life-changing if not life-saving.

Imagine the scene. A cavey discovers clean running water not too far away from her stony dwelling. That’s a really valuable piece of information to share with her fellow cavies.

Digestible news stories

It would have been the same for the cavey who knows which berries are edible and which are poisonous. He too would want to pass on that really important information. As would the cavey who knew where the sabre-toothed tiger lived.

Making those types of messages memorable was vital (which comes from the Latin vita, meaning life), because they are potentially life-saving messages.

Dramatic effect

So, how did our ancestors ensure their tribe remembered their important messages about berries and fresh water and aggressive tigers? It’s likely that, as their brains were developing, storytellers would have noticed that others around the campfire listened more intently to the exciting bits of their recollections.

So, the clever cavey would not simply have explained that the sabre-toothed tiger lives beside the big rock beyond the tree of figs. Because she knows that, if she makes the story more exciting, this vital piece of information is much more likely to sink in.

She knows that if she explains to her fellow cavies that she narrowly escaped certain death by fighting off the bloodthirsty claws and salivating jaws of a toothy beast they will sit up and take note. That, after all, is a very compelling message (which we still use in stories like the Gruffalo - discussed below).

As mentioned, we can’t be certain this is how it actually happened. But, when you consider the survival of our species, doesn’t dramatic storytelling sound a lot more likely than expressing information as dry facts?

Clever cavies

Remember, Homo Sapiens had developed big enough brains by this point to mix materials together to form some kind of paint to daub on the walls of their dwellings. There's also evidence that some of the materials they used came from miles away, indicating trade with other cavies. Part of the reason Homo Sapiens were able to see off the Neanderthals was by working together. By sharing information. By passing details of where other creatures lived, how they behaved, what they killed.

Stories today have very different content. But they still contain recognisable

messages wrapped up in compelling narratives that make them enjoyable to listen to or read. It’s this combination of elements that makes the message interesting, funny, horrible, compelling, scary… memorable!

Where did the Gruffalo come from?

Anyone who’s ever read the Gruffalo to their young children will recognise many of the elements and storytelling devices that our cave-dwelling ancestors may have used to keep their loved ones safe from scary hairies.

In a newspaper article, Julia Donaldson said she came up with the Gruffalo story after coming across a Chinese tale about a clever girl who tricks a hungry tiger into believing she is the queen of the jungle, which scares away the stripy beast. The author invented the word Gruffalo because it looks a bit like a buffalo, has the scary-sounding 'grrr' at the beginning and it rhymes with the question: 'doesn't he know?'

But where did the Chinese source originate? Maybe the Gruffalo could be traced all the way back to the caves (as discussed above).

What has all this got to do with modern business?

Businesses rely on convincing stories for their own survival. Their stories may not be about being saved from actual dangerous predators. But some of them are designed to help fend off fierce competition!

Their great stories, the ones their team members and their customers really buy into, help instil a sense of community among their stakeholders. Great stories convince team members that they belong; they convince customers to join the company's tribe. Because it's a tribe that cares about each member of its community. It's got something for them. Something worth having. Something they'd be wise to invest their time and money in.

National Share-a-Story day will survive the pandemic. That celebration may revolve around kids sitting on floor cushions, but that's just the modern version of cavies sitting around a fire listening to a life-changing storyteller.

Stories are vital to the survival of our species as well as our businesses. Get in touch if you need help creating and sharing yours.

The end.

#writing, #copywriting, #copywriter, #ContentWriting, #content, #English, #stories, #storytelling, #storyteller, #ShareAStory, #WorldBookDay

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