The Revolution That Never Was

By Patrick Thomas. Issue 004.

Welcome to The Story is the Strategy, a weekly newsletter about becoming a world-class business communicator. My mission is to help you become a remarkable storyteller and significantly increase your professional impact. Learn more here.

New Ideas

History is a series of counterfactuals. Our default view of the past is that things happened the way they did, end of story. But we know our own life doesn’t unfold like that when we’re living it: we can make choices, large and small, that alter our trajectory. History, the total sum of individual human choices and actions, is the same way.

For an extreme example, take the Industrial Revolution. It broke the Malthusian Trap and is arguably the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. There’s no shortage of arguments about why it happened precisely when and where it did. But I had always assumed that it was the result of thousands of years of slow but steady technological progress and accumulation. In other words, I had a model in my head that humanity wasn’t technologically “ready” for the Industrial Revolution until the 18th Century.

So I was astonished to learn that someone built a working steam engine in 50 AD. His name was Hero.

From Will Durant’s wonderful Story of Civilization: “A brilliant inventor or compiler, of whom we only know the one name, Hero, issued in this age at Alexandria a long succession of treatises on mathematics and physics, of which several have been preserved through Arabic translations… From these amusements, he was led on to make a… steam engine…. Hero’s keen sense of humor kept him from developing this invention to industrial uses… [he] succeeded in being a thaumaturgist, and failed to become a Watt.”

I’ll never be able to stop thinking about Hero. What he built as an amusement, a gimmick contraption for opening and shutting doors, is basically the same thing that kickstarted the Industrial Revolution as we know it. We’ve seen more technological progress in the last 250 years than the 3 million that preceded it. And had conditions, incentives and individual choices during the Roman Empire been different, perhaps we might’ve gotten a 1,500 year head start. The present would be radically changed.

The lesson here is that the world is not a fixed place. Learning to think about history through the lens of counterfactuals is one way to challenge our assumptions and remind ourselves that nearly every variable is malleable. There are connections everywhere, an infinite number of lessons to explore, and myriad ways to reach any objective.

It’s up to us to keep thinking creatively about what’s possible and imagining different worlds. This is the basis not just for inspiring stories, but a powerful and differentiated point of view about the future, too.

Put it to Work

Signposting. Any time you communicate information in a business context and you want to maximize your chances of people remembering your key ideas, consider “signposting” the talk for your audience.

Be very explicit at the beginning about your main points, announce each main point, and then summarize at the end by repeating the main points. This is the famous formula: “tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.”

Why do this? You need to wrap your head around a hard truth: by default, your audience isn’t that interested in what you have to say. Most business presentations are dull (though yours will be better if you follow the advice in this newsletter!), people have smartphones they can surreptitiously glance at, and their attention wanders.

The point of signposting is to give your audience “hooks” to re-enter the flow of your presentation if they get distracted. Announcing your basic structure up front and at the end also assuages anxiety that they missed anything important. And it creates a good structure that you can embellish with stories to drive home your key points. Signposting works.

As always, feedback is a gift. I’d love to hear your thoughts about anything in this newsletter, good or bad. I reply to every message I receive. Thank you!