I’ve just finished reading Sapiens – a brief history of humankind by historian Yuval Noah Hirari and I wanted to share some of the valuable leadership lessons I believe it contains.

Sapiens is a very ambitious undertaking ‒ how do you begin to summarise the first two hundred thousand years of Homo sapiens in less than five hundred pages? But I am not writing a book review. I want to share the communication techniques that Hirari used to achieve his audacious goal.

At the outset of his book Hirari asserts that the thing which has enabled our species to succeed and to master our environment and other species is our ability to create and to believe in myths. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Hirari proves himself to be a master storyteller.

In Sapiens, he draws on the full story spectrum to bring his claims to life and, crucially, to make them stick.

What do I mean by storytelling spectrum? For me the storytelling spectrum has 4 levels and as we travel along it we move from pure story to pure fact.

  1. fictional stories
  2. true stories
  3. examples
  4. facts

Here, extracted from Sapiens, is as a noteworthy sample from each level of the story spectrum.

  1. Fictional story: Hirari helps us to understand the power of credit in his tale about Jane McDoghnut (aspiring baker), A. A. Stone (building contractor) and Samuel Greedy (financier).
  2. True story: Hirari helps us to understand and remember the voracious conquests of the European empires by telling the hilarious story of the time that the astronauts training in the desert of the western US met an elderly native-American who gave them a message to take to the spirits on the moon.
  3. Example: Hirari helps us understand and remember the impact of child-mortality by telling us about King Edward I and Queen Eleanor. Because of the childhood death of most of their children it is the sixteenth child, Edward, who eventually inherits the throne.
  4. Fact: to help us understand and remember our impact on other species, Hirari tells us that 7 billion of us collectively weigh about 300 million tons, all domesticated farmyard animals weigh 700 million tons and all the remaining wild animals today weigh only 100 tons.

For me, each of these pieces of communication was powerful. I predict that I will remember them all and via them I will retain Hirari’s message. And isn’t being remembered the toughest communication challenge of all? Don’t we all need to find ways to extend the half-life of our messages?

What exactly is it that Hirari does that makes his messages stick? I’ve posted about my belief in the power of stories before, and so I won’t say any more about the pure stories he uses here. But I am interested in exploring what he does at the transition from story to fact.

Let’s look a little closer at Hirari’s child-mortality example. Actually, he claims that it is a story. As he introduces it he writes:

‘We can better grasp the full impact of these figures by setting aside statistics and telling some stories’

Absolutely. But all he does is give us the names of the King and Queen and a list of the names of their 16 children and their age at death. It’s not exactly a story, is it? But it works well. Why?

And so do the facts about the weight of all humans versus all wild animals. I am sure I will be quoting that for years. But why?

I believe it is because what Hirari does with examples and facts is to steal from the strengths of stories. He uses examples and facts to help us visualise what he says. In doing so, he make the abstract concrete and personal which means that we, the readers, have an emotional, rather than just a purely intellectual response.

I don’t know how much time it took for Hirari to find and to hone the stories, examples and facts that illustrate his book, but I do know that it was time well spent. I do know that, for me at least, his messages will have a long half-life.

But Sapiens is a book, are there really implications for leaders? Sapiens might be a book, but it is also a successful attempt to communicate. I believe that if leaders want their messages to stand the test of time, they should also invest the time in finding stories, examples and facts that help others to visualise, feel and engage with their messages.