Working in social media since 2005, I’ve long tried to understand the human motivations behind why and how we share what we do, the end goal being for me to better understand how our own work can be more impactful when storytelling.

But it was only when I was fortunate enough to hear Beau Lotto of UCL speak at the Future of Storytelling Summit in New York this Fall did I come to understand that much of the basis for our social behaviors are genetic and grounded in our past experiences. Understanding the science behind this should be a huge advantage in understanding how we work more effectively and how people then react to our work. So I’ve attempted to distil down a fascinating subject into a few key points from which we might all learn something as we build more impactful work. I may well have utterly bastardized Lotto’s work, but I hope I have done it some justice!

[tl;dr]: Bea Lotto’s work can be boiled down into these points:

  1. Accept that everything we do and see is influenced by past experiences
  2. Question everything, create doubt, explore
  3. Seek out diversity and new experiences
  4. Embrace uncertainty (and creativity) with play

There’s also a really good video by Beau which elaborates on all of this and more. Enjoy!

Sight-alone is useless

Using the below image, Lotto explains how sight, the simplest thing the brain does, is largely useless without context. 90% of our brains use greyscale – which is why in this instance, we don’t see the real threat until we add color. Adding just 10% color presents a very different picture (and threat) below.

Beau Lotto Predator Image for Storytelling

Beau Lotto Predator Image

Moving away from color, the below video (linked too, in case the embed doesn’t work!) shows that again, sight-alone is a futile. Only 10% of what our brain uses to see and interpret the outside world comes from our eyes. The rest is made up of instinct, experiences, societal and domestic biases. The frog clearly sees the things that instinctively it needs to survive, but cannot make the distinction between what it sees and any past experience of screen licking. (because clearly its brain is incapable of reason or meaningful memory).

What does this mean when storytelling?

Building stories that are just visual leaves a huge amount on the table. What about physical experiences (bringing retail into things) or audio (supporting TVC’s with podcasts) – both bring entirely different experiences from which the brain can draw associations and create memories. Campaigns and activity should be as multi-dimensional and stimulating as the senses of the people for which they are intended.


Context and Bias is everything

In the case of the frog, it had no ability to understand the context of the things it was seeing, so continued to try and feed. For humans, whilst massively more complex, we aren’t that much different. The information we take in visually means nothing if we have no associations to make with it. Lotto tells us (with more evidence than I!) that our brains automatically seek patterns and consistencies to things we have seen in the past (back in the day, in large part to keep us alive) in order to know how to react.

Kiki and Bubu - Beau Lotto Storytelling

Kiki and Bubu – Beau Lotto

For example, please let me introduce you to Kiki and Bubu…two random shapes. Can you guess which shape is called which name? If you said Kiki is on the left, you are like 98% of the population whose association with the sharp edges of the left shape sound like the sharp(er) edges of the work Kiki. Why? Evolution has told us that sharp = danger and aggressive sounds = danger. Again, a Lotto example, but one which shows that our minds and opinions are shaped by, in many cases, things we aren’t even aware of.

What does this mean when storytelling?

We are entering a new era of virtual computing experiences and products where people have no previous pattern to relate to, or in AI, things that aren’t even physical. From a personal work point of view, at Microsoft, we have a laptop where you can separate the screen from the keyboard (Surfacebook), the strange glasses ‘thing’ that lets you experience a previously incomprehensible world (Hololens) or a screen on which you can write things (OneNote inking) all are real-world examples where we need to ensure that we help customers relate the new and unseen, to the old and familiar, whilst taking them into a new place. Our ads often tell stories of people accomplishing marvelous physical and mental feats, but how much do we consider how relevant these feats are if our audiences have no tangible reference? We talk about AI, but against what references will our audiences gain an appreciation of the impact of AI?


Bias, Questions and Play

Lotto tells us that as a species, doubt has always been a pretty bad thing. By the time we decided that the animal might be dangerous, it was generally too late to find out it was. Doubt is, or was, our enemy, so our minds resolve to always look for the instantly familiar – yet as storytellers or creatives, our ‘familiar’ is also defined by our previous experiences and biases.

This famous gif of a London Underground train moves in or out of the tunnel depending on which way your brain feels most comfortable with seeing it – because it’s looking for what it is most familiar and easiest to relate to. With thought though and challenging your bias, you can get it to move the other way, but it takes effort. (ok, not a huge amount, but you get the point!)


Combating bias we are told, is often achieved simply by asking questions, but the big ‘why’ questions (Simon Sinek speaks very eloquently about this, too). Questions force us to challenge what we know, our assumptions and biases – and in our world, helps create new possibilities for creativity.

Play though, also has a huge role in opening up our minds much more naturally and powerfully and is according to Lotto, nature’s way of dealing with uncertainty. Play is one of the few things that exists solely for itself and for which doubt and uncertainty are inherent. Play (and the uncertainty that comes with it) open us up to new experiences and possibilities, different and unknown outcomes, forces collaboration to achieve success and embraces diversity to a common goal – it’s the perfect antidote to a familiar world from which we all draw our biases.

What does that mean when storytelling?

Diversity of gender, religion and language amongst many others are a well-known way in which we can get a different perspective and often direction, so we must ask ourselves if we are surrounding ourselves with the right people to challenge our own biases? Are we including enough diverse opinions, outside of our immediate circles to ensure our biases are suitably challenged?

At the same time, we might also think about how we ideate. Are four, sometimes windowless walls truly the best place for a brainstorm?! We might think about creating more energetic or playful ideation environments where we might face uncertainty or where ideation is forced upon us with team activity, or even a totally radical location where interactions around a problem to be solved are totally different, gamified even and open us up to entirely new possibilities.

So to summarize:

  1. Past experiences – accept that everything we create, do and see is entirely influenced by our past experiences,. We need to think outside of our own world
  2. Questions = Doubt – questioning everything forces us to challenge our own perceptions and biases. It is good to doubt, it forces us to think differently.
  3. Seek out diversity and new experiences – we cannot create net new if we think and see how we’ve always done
  4. Embrace uncertainty (and creativity) with play – it’s the only way that as a species, we willingly embrace uncertainty and can be used for positive experiences.
Casey Neistat - Influencer

Casey Neistat – Influencer

The acquisition of Beme by CNN, the company owned by mega influencer Casey Neistat is a fascinating evolution for both CNN AND Neistat. As someone who ploughs a small fortune into people like Neistat, I can’t help feeling that the space is massively overpopulated, frequently overpriced itself (and under-delivers), lacks accountability and is ripe for change. Mass or mainstream broadcast may be the tip of the iceberg (although this exit may just add further fuel to the fire!)

The smartest part of this move is that Neistat is going to be allowed to create a new format of content but with CNN the beneficiary, not solely the vlogger, with the obvious hope being that he’ll bring his audience with him.

This space is rife for an upheaval though – for too long, too many agencies and brands have paid these people too much money for so little accountability and with every vlogger now thinking Casey’s exit is something they can achieve, the need for accountability and measurement standards is paramount.

I’ll personally miss Casey’s content and would watch him wherever he broadcasts, which is why the move is such a smart one for CNN.

For everyone else, stop paying the ‘influencer ransom’ and get smart with who you’re working with!

I intend over the coming weeks, to share some of my thinking on this space. In 2015, I took the decision to move the entirety of Skype’s social media marketing activity over to influencer activity and we’ve gone from strength to strength – so it may help to navigate through the minefield a wee bit!

This is a really odd piece for me to write, not least because it’s something I’ve only ever talked about to my closest friends. But I do so in the hope that if nothing else, just one more post on this most important of subjects in this most important of weeks might get cut-through and provide a piece of assurance, some ‘pixels of hope’ if you will, to just one person who feels that they simply cannot cope.

And I do so, from someone who, in 2005 was in the same boat. Long-story short, circumstances changed on so many fronts within a very short space of time that I just didn’t know what to do. I never saw it coming, wasn’t prepared and certainly never had any experience of what to do next. I can only describe it as a feeling of drowning – flailing around with no real clue what to do to get my head above water. And that of my family’s heads too.

To all intents and purposes, I felt like I had pretty spectacularly failed at life. It wasn’t an easy thing to admit and what sort of message did that send to my two year old son?

But getting help was the BEST thing I ever did and has shaped my life immeasurably ever since.

The most amazing thing is that the support I received taught me so many invaluable lessons in perspective, and if anyone reading this, is or has been in the same boat, I can’t reiterate this strongly enough – perspective is everything.

For me, writing things (problems) down in boxes made a huge difference to being able to see and then deal with what felt like an infinite number of problems. In my circumstances, the quantity of positives actually FAR outweighed the negatives and gave a sense of something to work through.

Being able to create a figurative distance from the thick mist of negativity with was a huge start in perspective. You KNOW what you’re dealing with – and the clarity this view brings was a huge relief.

The next step was what I think I ended up calling something ridiculous like ‘Doctor Logic’ and going through what can only amount to be a set of ‘what if’ processes. Mindmapping became my friend!

This was the hardest part, trying to be objective about the consequences of various actions. If ‘A’ doesn’t happen, what are the consequences…if ‘A’ does happen, what will this mean for ‘X’? I simplify, of course, but as with all of these scribblings, the most important thing wasn’t necessarily about having the right answers, as it was forcing me to be practical about the negative things on the list and more importantly removing the emotion from them.

What spawned was a list of options and questions, some of them dreamed up, others extremes of both good and bad consequences, but all encouraged me to busy myself finding answers and fill the gaps in my ever growing list of potential solutions. I soon learned to ask organisations and people, without shame, questions I would have previously considered to be deeply humiliating – although the day we drove past the job centre and my 3-year old son said ‘look, there’s Daddy’s office’ still gets me today!

Like all ‘good’ mindfulness, focussing entirely on one thing means you’re not focussing on the others, and in my case, focussing on finding answers and options busied the mind from the worry. On reflection, I now realise that what this did was empower me. The ‘shit list’ as it became known, wasn’t going away any time soon but knowing I was flat out working on options to reduce the list made a huge difference and put the power back in my hands.

Slowly but surely, things kinda worked out (not without that professional support I might add!) – but without that sense of perspective and empowerment I don’t know how long we’d have taken to get back on track.

But whilst I don’t want to sound preachy, here’s what I learned and I hope if you’re reading this and find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll take some comfort from the words:

  1. Things are never as bad as you think
  2. There really IS no shame, it is NOT a weakness
  3. Everyone has shit to deal with, it’s just our ability to manage it that differs. You CAN learn
  4. Professionals are there to help – a dentist is a tooth professional, so why not use one for your mind?
  5. You DO have the ability to change things – and (4) can help with that
  6. Support comes from the most unlikely places (and conversely, leaves too!)
  7. ‘Hey, how are you doing’ can be the most powerful question you can ask someone who is struggling

Whilst I’d never wish anyone to go through what we did, the experience fundamentally changed my life, and I have a newfound appreciation of everything, with a set of skills to deal with anything that life throws at me. Sure, there are dark days but I feel better equipped than ever to deal with them. Truly – what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

So, it’s taken 11-years to share this, but in this week of raising awareness of mental health, I hope it gives some hope to someone, somewhere.

And if you need more support, try these links:



It’s easy to hate on Twitter (as I’ve often said before), but I think the recent NFL and Twitter deal is a massive opportunity for the platform and hopefully the start of things to come for the platform. But also, open up new dialogues with content/IP partners and subsequently brands.

Twitter seemed to have run out of steam with the ‘live’ thing. No live events = no live and meaningful activity on Twitter. And unstructured to say the least. That said, there was a sound logic to providing an independent platform on which ‘live’ could be discussed by anyone.

For production companies/rights owners, a structured partnership like this with the platform that people are already discussing their show or IP on, opens up not only new distribution revenues, but also potentially more custom-partnerships and creative opportunities for all parties involved = more value (and likely users and ad revenue).

This first deal (if indeed only going for $10m) is a snip, but must be followed by a series of other content deals to signal to investors and brands that there is now a strategy and structure to the way Twitter is going to own ‘live’ rather than merely provide a platform for it.

I, for one, am very hopeful that this makes a huge difference to Twitter – whatever you think about it, the way it has been managed and its numbers, its omnipresent and not going anywhere soon.

I hate bullies and bullying. I despise taking pleasure from others’ misfortune, which is why I have moved from sadness to anger about some of the headlines around Twitter. Do we really want to see Twitter die?

I find it incredibly ironic how businesses whose flawed and outdated business models force them to spew out such ridiculous link bait articles (and I do use the term ‘articles’ loosely) such as ‘Twitter is down for some people’ and lauding the decline of something that has been so critical to our evolution as a society.

Why do I say that? In my 11 years working in social, whenever I’ve been in doubt about a campaign approach or a piece of messaging, I always ask myself ‘how would I introduce myself or this ‘thing’ to a physical room full of real strangers?’ It’s a stark but useful sense check of what I would have to say to not be rejected or ridiculed face to face.

The point here though is that for social to work (content or platforms) it has to blend into an existing behaviour or narrative. Even Snapchat with its unconventional navigation uses an already familiar swipe gesture to get people to share their photos – in itself a established, familiar behaviour. It just adds layers of quirks (drawing, time limits) to existing habits.

Twitter is as natural a behaviour as any social network that’s ever existed and that’s been its unique strength. As a generation we are prone to making quips, we share sarcastic comments or share acidic observations – in fact I’d argue that we’re probably most at ease doing this with close friends but we’re more than happy sharing this on Twitter with a group of strangers.

Go to a gig, football game, whatever and you’ll end up talking to people you don’t know about the thing/event/game you are both at. Twitter allows us to do this too.

Whilst the character limit is likely not to be an issue for much longer, it tapped in to a generation who grew up using SMS-limited conversation which is exactly why Twitter’s 140 characters exists.

All that aside though, Twitter provides us with the digital means, more than any other social network, to fit into our everyday habits and behaviours. As other platforms encroach on Twitter’s core features, so Twitter has to evolve. It won’t be straightforward, but find me a business of Twitter’s size that evolves seamlessly and without bumps in the road and I’ll find you 20 successful ones that have overcome those bumps to succeed.

So let’s all stop hating on Twitter. Yes it has problems, yes it needs to reposition, but when it’s gone, it’s gone – yet you’ll still be wanting to leave those snarky comments, funny quips and bitching about your favourite team to other fans. 

I say ditch the baying mob, whose sole aim is to prop up a dying business model with linkbait and make up your own mind. 

Sometimes the timing is just not right. Sometimes you feel like someone else has found what you knew to be your winning lottery ticket! Wrapify are my lost lottery ticket!

Whilst it’s kinda gut-wrenching to see an old idea come to fruition (let me be clear, I lay no claim to anything Wrapify are doing), it’s actually quite comforting to see that the market conditions for this type of initiative are right.

Back in 2005 when I first came up with the exact same idea (I incorporated and even had a cute logo and business cards!!), there was nothing like the technology around like there is today. Fleet management ‘little black boxes’ were only becoming affordable, mobile ad viewing or OTS measures seem draconian compared to what’s around today, and wrapping was actually quite an expensive, relatively rare thing. So after having been laughed at by TWO media agencies and with no real experience of how to take it to market, I packed the idea in and gave up on it.

And look now – apps provide the telemetry, black boxes (if ever required at all now) are omnipresent as the insurance companies try to make us safer, location data is everywhere, social networks provide multiple ways of not only sharing your drive but of bringing advertisers and drivers together.

What seeing this HAS done though, is made me realise is:

  • sometimes, your gut feeling is the right feeling
  • you need people around you to challenge and support you but also
  • resilience and thick skin can’t be acquired but earned
  • entrepreneurs are a special breed!

I’m absolutely thrilled to see this come to market – it’s a stark realisation though that in 2016, technology is NO barrier to seizing your opportunity.