Stories are humanity’s superpower. Cheetahs have super speed, ants have super strength, and spiders—they can spin webs. But only a human can spin a yarn—and that’s a bigger deal than you might think.

Before the internet—before TV, books, and even before alphabets—we used stories to preserve our histories, our values, and our ways of life. Stories wrap up information, instruction, meaning—and a whole lot of other stuff—inside one tempting morsel. They’re easy to remember and share—and to repurpose when we need to adapt.

There were once two brothers, but only one of them could receive his father’s blessing. The rest of the story writes itself, but only because it was long ago coded into our narrative DNA.

The building blocks of storytelling

That DNA is mapped out in the Aarne-Thompson motif-index of folklore, a classification system used by folklorists (they should really be called storyologists) to catalog and analyze stories passed around throughout the world. The index lists familiar storylines like lowly boy becomes king. It drills down to exquisite and specific tropes, such as (choosing at random here) dwarf king falls into porridge pot at court of human king. The index is thoroughly researched and contains an apparently exhaustive level of cross-referencing. You could comb through it for years, despairing of ever comprehending all the possibilities and connections.

Fortunately, there are more fundamental story building blocks—the simple nucleotides comprising all story DNA. Despite their great variation, all stories have a few key elements in common. First, characters—the heroes and villains, the tricksters and sage advisors. And second, change—the secret sauce. Change turns lowly boys into kings and tips dwarfs into sticky situations.

We listen to and remember stories because we have a deep, biological need to understand how to make change happen—or how to avoid having it happen to us. How can an urchin rise above his station? What should you watch out for in a jealous sibling? How do you get porridge stains out of a doublet?

Those same imperatives make story critical to all forms of communications, including your marketing:

  • You have a problem; we have the solution. Here’s how you (a lowly boy) can become king.
  • Or imagine a certain nightmare scenario (involving a porridge pot). Here’s how our organization is working to keep porridge out of courts.

It’s simple in theory but complex in practice. Why? Because of that very universality coiled up in story DNA. Because all stories are similar in their essentials, your stories need to be compelling, particular, and—toughest of all—true in their specifics. (Fiction writers and tall-tale tellers abide by these rules, too: A made-up story has to seem nearly twice as true as something that actually happened.)

As marketers, we find out as much as we can about our clients and their audiences, and about the change that happens, or is prevented from happening, as a result of their interactions. We do a lot of reading and research. We listen to customers, leaders, and stakeholders. We search for the stories that others in the marketplace are telling. We look for what’s special, intriguing, exciting, even scary. And we figure out a compelling story that helps it all make sense.

So the next time a radio spot makes you laugh, or a TV commercial makes you cry, or a YouTube video suddenly helps you see the solution to a problem that had you pulling your hair out in clumps, you’ll know: Story is behind it.

It’s not exactly rocket science. But it is how we got from rocks to rockets in the first place.