Richard Branson Uses This 400,000-Year-Old Practice to Unleash His Best Ideas

And you can too.

Photo Credit: Westend61/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

Successful entrepreneurs who make a difference are, in effect, professional storytellers, says Richard Branson. The ability to craft a compelling story behind a product, service, company, or cause has long been one of Branson’s great passions.

Entrepreneurs who want to excite people and engage hearts and minds should follow Branson’s advice–use stories to transfer your ideas to another person. “Storytelling is a great way to get your views across, highlight how you and your company are different than your competitors, and also to work out new ideas,” Branson says.

Branson doesn’t just talk about the power of story to build brands. He uses an ancient, clever practice to build storytelling skills among his Virgin teams and to elicit the best ideas. On Necker, Branson’s private island, he likes to end the day swapping stories around an elaborate fire pit.

“Storytelling is as old as the campfire, and as young as a tweet,” Branson wrote in 2015 about his campfire habit. “Regardless of the medium–in person, on social media, through old fashioned letters, on the phone, or via email–there is nothing more effective and affecting than storytelling.”

Some of Branson’s best ideas have come from sitting around a campfire. Understanding the science and history behind the campfire could unleash your imagination, too.

Branson cites a study by anthropologist Polly Wiessner as a reason entrepreneurs should spend more time around a campfire. Wiessner says that when our ancestors gained control of fire around 400,000 years ago, it was a major milestone in human development. It allowed them to cook food, ward off predators, and inspire each other with conversations around evening light. Stories informed people in the tribe, educated them, and ignited their imagination.

Remarkably, storytelling does the same thing today. The tools of communication have changed, but the primitive brain has not. We think in story. We communicate in story. We remember information when it’s delivered in story. And if we remember information, we can act on it.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Branson in person about storytelling and success. He reminded me that great stories have one element in common–failure. “If your life is one long success story, it can get very boring,” he told me. Making mistakes and experiencing setbacks is part of the DNA of every successful entrepreneur, Branson says. And he’s no exception.

Branson openly shares his business successes and his failures–and there were many.

By embracing failure and talking about his own hurdles, Branson is using a classic storytelling technique that audiences can’t resist. It’s called the “Man in a Hole” story arc. A person gets in trouble, falls, and faces daunting hurdles to escape. The person climbs out of the hole and is transformed by the experience. Simply put, a fall followed by a rise. A recent study of more than 6,100 movie scripts finds that Man in a Hole movies are significantly more successful at the box office than every other story plot because they take people on an emotional journey.

Think about his personal story that Branson shares publicly. Branson’s personal narrative goes like this:

A young man is challenged with a learning disorder (dyslexia), which is misunderstood at the time. His teachers call him lazy and dumb. He fails at school and drops out. He starts a magazine called Student and, in doing so, he learns that, far from being lazy, his mind works in a unique and brilliant way that makes him a better entrepreneur. He learns that “being different is my greatest asset.”

Branson’s life story is the Man in the Hole story arc. He never gets tired of telling it and we never get tired of hearing it.

Branson launched Student magazine because he believed that creativity and storytelling could change the world. Today, “with the experience of 50 years in business behind me, I still believe that,” Branson wrote in a recent blog post.

Storytelling is in our DNA. We are hard-wired to transfer ideas to one another in story form. For your next company offsite, you might want to consider stepping outside of a meeting room and sitting around a campfire instead. It might spark your team’s best ideas.

Originally published at

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