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From Cave Paintings to Excel Spreadsheets

I thought I’d mention why I chose this picture as my blog’s main image. Many of you may recognise this image as being a “cave painting” from Lascaux. Located in southwestern France, these caves are festooned with paintings that are more than 17,000 years old. Many of the 2,000 images are of the large animals that the Palaeolithic inhabitants would have known such as bulls, equines and stags. While the Lascaux artists did not paint the region’s plants or other environmental features, they did depict themselves (primarily as hunters) and also drew abstract signs (dots, lattice patterns) that scholars are still interpreting.

Some researchers hypothesise that the images are spiritual and relate to visions the hunters would have while in a trance. Others theorize that the paintings represent past successful hunting excursions, or rituals that were performed to ensure future hunting success. Not do be outdone, several art historians posit that the artists believed that the images themselves could spring to life, so painted “weapons” (the geometric shapes) in order to ensure everyone’s safety.

No one can know for sure what these amazing pictures mean. However, most scholars agree that those who painted the animals were not doing so just to show off their artistic ability. Providing both food and clothing, these creatures were crucial for the inhabitants’ survival. On some level, the animals shown on the cave walls symbolize a magical, hazardous world in which humans and animals weave around each other, playing a complex, dangerous game of survival.

The pictures are telling a story.

Psychologist Pamela Rutledge observed that while technology has progressed at a dizzying pace, our brains are evolving much more slowly. “Our brains still respond to content by looking for the story to make sense out of the experience. No matter what the technology, the meaning starts in the brain,” she writes.1 “Stories leapfrog the technology and bring us to the core of experience, as any good storyteller knows.

We have always communicated through stories. In fact, let me tell you a story right now. I used to work as director of an English-language school in Singapore, and every month we would have a directors’ meeting. The school was part of a larger, private school that offered courses in hospitality, business and other such areas. Just as surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, we could be sure that sometime during the meeting the sales manager would deliver a dry-as-dust report on the number of students that had been recruited that month. Her slides were nothing more than complex Excel charts that were impossible to see if you were seated in the back of the room. And, unfortunately, every month, this hapless young woman would get castigated by the irate school owner who did not find her numbers convincing. Surely she could have spared herself some tongue lashings if she had only cast her findings in terms of a story that placed the figures in a meaningful context. She never created a narrative to even try to justify the figures in terms of the economy, marketing expenditures, or international educational trends. Without the glue of a story binding her figures together, her impossible-to-read slides always led her towards public humiliation.

We are hard-wired to listen to stories. We want to be enthralled by stories. Think about this before you write you next presentation.