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In marketing and digital communication, we tend to think about storytelling as the shiny, new toy we managed to discover. In fact, storytelling is the dusty, old toy that’s been at the centre of human communication for a very long time.
One amazing example of storytelling is history, specifically, how people throughout history have managed to skew our perception of reality through cunning, creative and effective storytelling. In this piece, we’ll go through a few exceptional lessons history can teach any storyteller.
Nicknames stick and bad nicknames stick to bad people
Ever heard of the Emperor Caligula? Although he lived 2 millennia ago, his name is still used today to describe how a psychopath can charm seemingly intelligent people into granting him absolute power and how, regardless of his cruelty, mockery and the humiliation he puts them through, he’s able to hold on to that power, at least for a while.
If you haven’t completely skipped history class, the life of excess and sadism Emperor Bootikins lead should come as no surprise. That’s right, the regal sounding caligula (latin for small boot) is, in fact, nothing more than a nickname the little Gaius Iulius Caesar Germanicus got as a result of wearing little soldier’s outfits as he was accompanying his father, the great general Germanicus, on military campaigns.
Caligula hated the name and it’s likely people weren’t calling him by his nickname, unless they were really looking to get in trouble with the psychotic emperor. Yet his name stuck. Why? Because people have an instinctive need to find uncommon words to describe uncommon people, deeds and places.
Just like we call people like Ted Bundy monsters, we’re driven to differentiate this Gaius from any other that ever lived. Sometimes, we embellish their names with nouns like (Ivan) the terrible or mad king (George) to describe their legacy. In sharp contrast, Caligula is remembered not as the insane, even though almost every single surviving source describes him as such, but as Emperor Bootikins; perhaps as history’s own version of revenge for the name a loathsome man loathed.
Moral of the story: A good name doesn’t have to be grand to be memorable, ridicule can do the job just as effectively. Playing with contrasts can lead to very convincing concepts that, given enough time, can take on a life of their own.
Character assassination through gossip works splendidly
One can hardly write a list of juicy historical intrigue without mentioning England’s Henry VIII and the woman he turned his country upside down for, Anne Boleyn. History has a slightly bipolar notion of Anne, not really being able to make up its mind whether she was a manipulative seductress or an innocent woman who simply wasn’t able to fully grasp the stakes of the game she was playing.
Henry had his second wife killed after rumors of infidelity began circulating around the Tudor court. Whichever side of the argument you’re own, the fact is, the evidence against her was very flimsy and it’s likely her only crime was not being able to give Henry the son he was obsessively trying to have.
Anne was loud, proud and determined, which didn’t make for a very virtuous lady in those times. She had managed to slip into the shoes of a very popular queen and she had no qualms about putting powerful men back in their places, making her even less popular.
Moral of the story: Anne’s trial and execution show just how easily an unsympathetic audience can fuel the flames of gossip, making the line between fact and fiction so murky that 500 years later, one still wonders not whether she was guilty or not, but whether she was a victim or a villain.
Playing on prejudice can change history
The image of aristocracy that has been handed down to us through history is that of a disconnected few living in complete luxury, leeching off the starving, sickly and destitute masses. There were, indeed, quite a few times in history when the gap between the privileged few and the unfortunate many was so great they were literally living in completely different worlds.
One such example is XVIIIth century France, the time of Marie Antoinette, the fashionista Queen Consort of Louis XVI, eventually guillotined when she was only 37. As the French Revolution drew closer, Marie Antoinette’s popularity began to dwindle among accusations of debauchery and extravagant spending to the point that she was nicknamed Madame Deficit. It was around this time, during a famine, when she supposedly said Let them eat cake, in response to being told that people were starving due to bread shortages.
The statement attributed to her is meant to emphasize just how little regard she had for people’s suffering and how disconnected she was from the real world and her people. In fact, she said no such thing. The phrase first appears in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography, Confessions, when Marie Antoinette was only 9 years old.
Moral of the story: People are unlikely to question things that confirm their expectations. We know Marie Antoinette led a life of excess so it’s not that much of a stretch to think she was ignorant and callous enough to dismissively have said peasants ought to eat luxury foods when they were lacking the most basic ones.
Never underestimate the power of good PR
When one talks about real-life villains throughout history, one of the first figures that comes to mind is the evil, ugly, hunchback Kind Richard III. After his death and the subsequent rise to power of Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, Richard became the subject of William Shakespeare’s historical play Richard III.
And boy does Shakespeare paint a vivid picture. Richard is the man who plans and plots his way onto the English throne, marrying his sister-in-law for her fortune, seducing his own niece, murdering his own brother and, finally, disappearing his own nephews to make sure he’s able to grab and hold on to the power to rule. So good was the Tudor’s chief propagandist, William Shakespeare that, 500 years later, we have trouble seeing Richard as anything other than a Machiavellian figure.
In reality, Richard was fiercely loyal to Edward IV all through his life and, once his brother’s children had been declared bastards, he had little reason to fear or disappear them. Whether or not he had them killed is probably one of history’s biggest murder mysteries. What’s certain is that the image of Richard III that reaches us is nothing short of the archetypal, overly-ambitious tyrant.
Moral of the story: The greatest lesson Richard’s short chapter in history can teach us is that modern man didn’t invent PR, he just formalized it. The Shakespeare School of Effective PR shows us how a talented storyteller can completely shift our perception of a well-known historical figure, using nothing more than one, single play and a good turn around the rumor-mill.
The Bottom Line
As the greatest story ever told, history never runs out of source material. For storytellers, it’s arguably the biggest and most valuable source of inspiration. It shows us who and how has written its most thrilling and memorable chapters, how best to vilify and vindicate people, and how names can give way to memorable stories.