The Power of Poetry and Prose
We see the world through rational and emotional lenses. Good storytelling always uses both.
I just finished Siddhartha Mukherjee’s awe-inspiring The Gene: An Intimate History. Mukherjee — a cancer physician and researcher who won the Pulitzer for his epic history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies — has gone on to write one of the most important and illuminating books ever on what makes us who we are.
The sheer scope of this book is remarkable, as is Dr. Mukherjee’s ability to build a sweeping and accessible narrative around the human struggle to understand what makes us human, from ancient Greece right up through the spring of last year. More than a decade on from the sequencing of the human genome we’re only now understanding the power and limits of genetic technologies, set against the cultural and ethical challenges that have plagued genetic science from Darwin to Mengele to Junjiu Huang, the Chinese scientist who’s broken with the prohibition on genetic modification of human embryos.
The power of this book stems from its masterful blending of the scientific and the artistic; the hard-nosed facts of human biology and the subtler truths of human nature; the mathematical precision of our hard-wired instructions and the qualitative nuance of individual identity. The book represents both a professional and a personal journey for Mukherjee, a highly regarded researcher and physician whose own family history is dotted with tragic cases of schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder.
It’s this duality that propels the story, and elevates its impact on the reader. Each side of the coin illuminates the other, in ways neither could achieve alone. It first struck me how powerful this was, then how unusual.
But is it? I finished the book still bleary-eyed from a string of too-late nights watching the Democratic National Convention. There were many highlights, but on the third night, President Obama’s soaring oration on the nature of what it means to be American struck me as particularly powerful.
It’s become almost a cliche to follow Obama’s speeches with a citation of Mario Cuomo’s observation that politicians must “campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” Both are required of effective leaders, the New York Governor once noted. The reason is both are required of effective storytellers.
If you’re an entrepreneur or a marketer struggling to communicate a positioning that will work to get customers, investors, and employees interested in what you’re doing, you’d do well to keep this in mind. The purely rational positioning most entrepreneurs come up with initially may very well be effective in changing what a few people think, but it will only be the people willing to pause long enough to reflect on what it is you have to say. In a busy world, those people will be few and far between.
To increase the reach and impact of your message — to try and change not only minds but the hearts and thus actions of a larger group of people — you need something more. You need the emotional dimension of positioning as well; the human or (ideally) personal story of why what you’re doing is worthy of the listeners attention, of why it matters in the first place.
To change what people do, you need to change what they feel, and not just what they think. Every great story — every great book, every great speech, and every great positioning — finds a way to do both.