The System of Stories Part 2: How To Understand Your System

Mar 11, 2020

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Welcome to part 2 of the System of Stories: a 3 part essay written in collaboration with Zowie Langdon. We’re examining how great stories spread through systems, and why others fail. If you haven’t read our high level overview in part 1, we recommend starting there.

Want to apply our framework to your storytelling? Skip to the end for our actionable checklist.

Last essay introduced the System of Stories: A framework Digital Storytellers can follow to share their biggest ideas more effectively. We learned what a system actually is (hint: it’s everything), how thoughts turn into ideas, and how they then spread through reciprocation cycles.

Now it’s time to apply your idea to the System of Stories. 

Throughout this essay keep one concept in mind: the meme. Most of us know memes as funny, mentally sticky images that spread virally online. But there’s more to them than a quick laugh.

Dictionary.com defines a meme as:

"A cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.”

Does that sound like a funny picture to you?

There’s a striking similarity between simple yet brilliant memes, and the way genes replicate during natural selection. Great genes are like great memes: Both will spread like wildfire under the right conditions. One shares genetic traits, the other passes on ideas.

Making your idea go viral like the “Doge meme” isn’t easy. But as we’ll learn there’s a framework we can follow to optimise them. And that starts by analysing your system.

Doge Meme
The Doge meme: So viral it reached Wikipedia status.

In order to give our ideas the best chance of spreading, there’s two steps we’ll need to go through before crafting the story itself:

  1. Identify your Higher Cause. What is the purpose behind sharing your story?
  2. Analyse your system. What makes the people in your system tick?

Step 1: Identify Your Higher Cause

Every great story starts with a higher cause. 

Knowing your higher cause means knowing why you’re sharing ideas. This means clarifying:

  1. Why this idea matters to us, 
  2. What we’re hoping it will achieve.

The simplest way to do this is by answering this question: 

“What if everyone believed X?”

This question could be how you tell curious customers why you set up your business. It might be the first words spoken on stage when sharing your vision: A north star to keep your story’s purpose clear.

Here’s the Higher Cause questions for some of today’s biggest companies:

Airbnb Tesla Spotify Higher Cause Questions
The “What if everyone believed X?” higher cause questions of Airbnb, Tesla and Spotify.

These higher causes power billion dollar companies. Yet every story, no matter the size, needs purpose. Even memes are shared with a cause in mind. “What if everyone believed we could consistently share meaningful stories that change the lives of our chosen system?” The System of Stories is designed to answer that question.

If you don't know why you're sharing an idea at this stage, it’s probably not ready to be shared yet. Lacking a higher cause for your stories is like building a house without stable foundations: There’s always a chance the project might crumble.

Once you’ve defined your higher cause by answering “What if everyone believed X?”, you’re ready to powerfully prepare your idea by diving into your system.

Step 2: Analyse Your System

Getting ideas to spread is not easy. Imagine you’re trekking through in a jungle, carrying a torch to someone waiting miles away. To light someone else’s fire (and share your idea), the jungle presents a tough journey littered with treacherous obstacles. Fail to cross any one of them, and your delicate torch is extinguished.

Ideas must pick a path through life’s dense jungle. Your goal is to help them make it through, illuminating the lives of your system.

In his book “The Selfish Gene”, Richard Dawkins writes:

Richard Dawkins Ideas Spreading Quote
Richard Dawkins Ideas Spreading Quote

Dawkins’s description is strikingly similar to the reciprocation cycle explored in part 1. It’s this process we’ll be breaking down; just like studying a viral meme, we need to understand what gives your ideas a chance to spread, which lets us in turn harness their potential.

If you haven’t already, clearly define your system now. Who is the intended audience of your idea? Your story doesn’t need to influence anyone and everyone. If it can change your system’s behaviour, you’ve succeeded. Clarify who exactly you’re targeting with your stories by answering this question: “The system I am targeting with my stories is X.” (Our checklist cheat sheet has all these steps in one place).

Armed with your higher cause and a clearly defined system, you’re ready to find the shortest route to passing your idea’s torch onto someone else. 

To keep the fire burning, we’ll need to analyse 4 key factors:

  1. Value Alignment: What does your system already believe in?
  2. Context Density: How much does your idea relate to something your system already knows?
  3. Novelty: How new is your particular idea?
  4. Path of High Authority: Who can spread your idea most effectively?
The 4 stages of system analysis
The 4 stages of system analysis

Factor 1: Value Alignment 

To make your idea as shareable as possible, it’s vital it aligns with your system’s values.

Our actions are guided by what we decide is right and wrong. This tendency has been as deadly as international wars, and as prosperous as establishing modern democracy. But at the heart of these innately human choices lie one thing: our values.

Just like you, your chosen system uses their values to evaluate ideas, and decide whether to reciprocate them or not. But here’s the important part: Your system shares certain values. Aligning your idea with shared values your system already has makes it satisfyingly click into place in the large puzzle of their minds.

Zowie saw Value Alignment play a big role when building a cryptocurrency trading platform with his team. The people he worked with valued security. But he also noticed that no idea to improve product security would be picked up if it didn't align with what most of the team already believed. Yet if alignment was there, the idea usually went through. That’s the main goal of Value Alignment: making people—especially early adopters—motivated to push an idea forward because it aligns with who they already are.

Applying Value Alignment

To uncover your system’s values, ask yourself (or even better, one of your system) these questions:

By empathising with our system, we can step into their shoes and try to understand what they value. For example, people in the hospitality industry know that without creating great moments and memories they’re unlikely to get much business. That reveals a shared value: quality experiences. Similarly, a shared belief of managers might be that their team must be motivated to be productive. This uncovers that they value productivity.

How to uncover values from your system’s beliefs

The more tangible proof you have of your system’s values, the more effective your analysis will be. We can measure Value Alignment with specific online searches. There’s 2 tools you can use to do this:

  1. Google Alerts: Get regular updates on what content is most popular for your system (e.g. London FinTech, UX Copywriting, Latino Diversity)
  2. Google Trends: Track search term frequency, and see what people are actually exploring in real time.

Now, run the following steps:

  1. Set up a Google Alert with your target system as the keyword (e.g. Hospitality professionals would be “Hospitality”)
  2. Run a Google Trends search on your target system AND their values.

For example, let’s go back to the hospitality professionals valuing quality experiences. If I search “hospitality experiences” on Google Trends, I get:

Google Trends hospitality experiences data
Google Trends hospitality experiences data

Note how the consistent dips (around August / September) in popularity also tells us sharing an idea with this system is seasonal: it’s best to share when there’s an upcoming spike.

Similarly if I set up a Google Alert for Hospitality, I’ll get a list of what my system’s talking about:

Google Alerts: Hospitality

To make this actionable, distil down to the top 3 values for your system. For Zowie—or rather the ‘idea’ he wants to spread of himself (a CTO with eclectic interests)—his personal 3 values are:

  1. Improving the world through creation and action
  2. Improving lives directly, both our own and others
  3. Deepen understanding through eclectic curiosity

The people who share these values form the system Zowie wants to impact. Whenever he produces any writing on his blog, the goal is making sure it aligns with at least one value. Any story you share with your system needs the same aim: At least one overlapping value.

It’s worth noting your system is part of other social systems too. They could be part of a company, family, city, sports club, and many more. Depending on how far you want your idea to spread, it might be worth thinking about what Value Alignment these overlapping systems share.

For example, imagine a group of business managers who also exercise at a gym. While working out they might make friends with personal trainers. They also value having a productive team. They’re two quite different systems, and yet there’s overlap. In this example, it’s likely the idea of a new approach to productive time management would align with both system’s shared values.

Identifying your system’s values lets you latch onto motivations that are already present rather than creating one from scratch. It's like jumping onto a moving train instead of one still at the station. (Please don't try that analogy in real life.)

Factor 2: Context Density

Context Density is measured by the amount of mental connections your idea inspires in your target system. 

The best ideas have high Context Density. Imagine talking about a new vegan recipe you’ve discovered at... a dental conference. The crowd goes mild. Now imagine sharing that same recipe at a conference for environmentalists. Why would environmentalists (probably) be more enthusiastic about the idea? They have more in common with veganism. They have a higher Context Density.

The availability bias suggests we believe ideas that are more easily accessible in our memory, even though they might not objectively be more true than others. That’s the power of Context Density: have a strong overlap, and your system will feel like your idea just “clicks” with them.

An important thing to note is it’s the connections surrounding your idea that matter most. If you're talking about your vegan recipe and the way it improves tooth health, it suddenly becomes a lot more interesting at the dental conference. The core of your story doesn't change: it's still a vegan recipe. The surroundings make it more interesting. We’ll learn how to layer this surrounding information into your story in Part 3.

How is Context Density different to Value Alignment? People won’t intuitively understand the idea you're presenting if Context Density is low. If I shared the idea of a blockchain financial system to a group of farmers, there would be Value Alignment: the economic benefits matter to them. But my idea would most likely go nowhere. Why? No overlapping context for them to frame my idea in. They don’t spend their time thinking about the economy, so they can’t see my idea’s actual benefits. Now if I presented the idea to include better prices for their crops or cheaper materials, suddenly there’s a level of Context Density that could interest them.

Applying Context Density

To identify the mental connections your system can make with your idea, we need to know what’s going on in their minds. Just like Value Alignment, the best way to do this is paying attention to behaviour. 

To measure Context Density, make a context list of all the different information your system consumes:

With a context list, you’ll have a better idea of how your system spends their time, and can importantly assess exactly what kind of context web they’re building.

Want to target athletes? Become familiar with nutrition, physical recovery and fitness. Targeting the financial world? Go through copies of the Financial Times and financial news sites. Whatever your niche, prime yourself to have high Context Density by consuming content from your context list. 

With this understanding, this process gives you—the Digital Storyteller—the information you need to shape your idea into its stickiest form, giving it a high Context Density and letting your system intuitively understand your message.

Factor 3: Novelty

Novelty measures how new your system will perceive your idea to be.

Remember that one person who always tells the same story every time you see them? You’ll probably listen out of politeness, hiding your boredom.

Why lack interest? There’s nothing new. It’s a low Novelty story. 

Novelty is defined by Merriam Webster as:

“Something new or unusual.”

If a system has heard your story (or something similar) many times before, it’s unlikely to spread. But what if it’s new or unusual? Now you’ve got a chance. Just like our stomachs fill up as we eat, our brains fill up with ideas. Trying to influence a full mind is much harder than persuading a hungry one.

An idea’s Novelty is entirely perceived rather than true fact. If a story brings an old idea into a new light, it might still be “new” relative to the system itself. Novelty is viewed in the eyes of your system, not by objective benchmarks.

When crafting your story keep ethics in mind. As hordes of advertisers have learned there’s great gains in exploiting our mind’s cravings. Hungry minds are vulnerable. It’s up to Digital Storytellers to feed them nutritious information, not fattening junk.


McDonald’s advertising: Exploiting our cravings
McDonald’s advertising: Exploiting our cravings.

Applying Novelty

Our aim is anticipating how our system perceives our idea’s Novelty. So how do we measure how novel our idea is? 

In How To Measure Anything, Douglas Hubbard points out it’s not worth doing a massive study to measure something if there’s a lot of uncertainty. Given we can’t say for certain how novel ideas are (remember, Novelty is perceived, not objective), we’ll be keeping this step simple. 

To test how new your idea is for your system, simply see whether similar stories exist online already.

Make a list of 3-7 keywords relevant to your idea, then search and see what comes up. It’s important to search using keywords as opposed to your idea’s title itself. For example, my last essay was on Ancient Greek Lessons On Building Brands That Last. If I search that title in Google:

Ancient Greek Brand Building: Google search
Ancient Greek Brand Building: Google search

Doesn’t appear to be any similar stories taking the top spot. But as soon as I do a keyword search:

Ancient Greek Brand Building: Keyword search
Ancient Greek Brand Building: Keyword search

This search instantly reveals 5 other similar articles.
You can use the following benchmarks to determine your idea's Novelty:

When running the above search query, I counted 8 links across the first 3 pages of Google that told a similar story to me. That gives my idea medium Novelty.

Novelty has strong overlap with Context Density. It could be worth revisiting your Google Trends data and see how much your specific idea is mentioned. Low mentions suggest a high Novelty.

An idea with high Novelty, Value Alignment and Context Density is a powerful indicator that the time’s right to share your story.

Factor 4: Path of High Authority

The Path of High Authority determines the best medium and agents to influence for your story to spread.

At this point you’ve almost finished analysing your system. What happens once your idea is released into the wild? If your system receives your story from agents they know, like and trust, and/or in their desired medium of consumption, they’re far more likely to reciprocate it. This is taking the Path of High Authority.

The sole goal of this final factor is identifying the best medium for your idea, and the agents that will most influence it within your system. Think of the Path of High Authority as a springboard to launch your ideas at maximum velocity. 

Mediums are the specific forms systems take that reach many people. Think blogs, YouTube, Twitter. They all replicate information, and your idea will be best suited to one.

Agents are the most important individuals to influence with your idea. They will (or won’t) then decide to reciprocate it.

Done well, the Path of High Authority identifies the best medium for your idea to spread, and creates social incentives for your system to advocate for your idea; if influential agents are seen supporting it, it quickly becomes favourable for other system members to follow their example.

Martin Luther King addresses his system. His medium of speech, alongside being a highly influential agent let his ideas spread like wildfire.

Applying Path of High Authority

First, identify your story’s best medium. Marshall McLuhan famously proclaimed “the medium is the message”. The way we choose to present our story, whether through audio, speech, text or something else strongly determines the resulting change in human behaviour. For example, sharing your idea on a hot medium like YouTube (high in information, low in participation) will prompt a different response to sharing it on Twitter (low in information, high in participation).

There’s no right or wrong answer here. Different systems are suited to different mediums. Younger systems who consume a hot video-heavy diet are less susceptible to cool text-based messages. Likewise, an older-aged system growing up reading newspapers could be less interested in audio (a very hot medium). Be aware that your chosen medium will shape any resulting behaviour change.

YouTube homepage screenshot
YouTube is a very hot medium: Stories posted here can expect a hot response

To select your story’s medium (if you don’t already know), review the context list you created when analysing Context Density. What medium is your system consuming most? This should give you a good indicator of which medium your idea is best suited to.

Next, identify your system’s most influential agents. As a rule, the majority of your agents (>75%) should actively use your chosen medium. You don’t need a large number of agents; perhaps you only need to convince a meeting room of people? In which case your goal is to identify the decision makers: The people you’ll design your story for.

Ask yourself: “Who are the key people in my system I need to believe my story?” To keep it simple, we recommend having no more than 10 agents on this list.

The big benefit of doing this? When it comes to sharing your story, you can engage with these agents directly. You now have a great excuse to tag them on social media, email, or reach out directly using your story as ammunition.

Now you know your system, you’re ready to craft your story. Our next essay will give you all the tools you need to craft a compelling story that drives your system to reciprocate your idea.

System Analysis Checklist

Ready to give your idea the best chance of spreading? Here’s our cheat sheet checklist to effectively analyse your system:

As a reminder, 3 key definitions from Part 1:

  1. A thought could be anything you think. “This would be cool…”
  2. An idea offers a perspective and has clear direction. “I think we should do this…”
  3. Reciprocation cycles turn thoughts into ideas when people interact. “Have you thought about doing this?”

We are trying to optimise your story to spread, by giving your idea the greatest volume of reciprocation cycles within your chosen system.

Step 1: Clearly define your system.

Step 2: Identify your Higher Cause: Your reason to share stories.

Step 3: Measure the Value Alignment between your system and idea.

  1. What goal drives these people to do what they do?
  2. What are their shared beliefs? How do they uniquely see the world?
  3. What does their day look like? What do they look forward to?
  1. Set up a Google Alert with your target system as the keyword to track relevant content (e.g. Hospitality professionals would be “Hospitality”)
  2. Run a Google Trends search on your target system AND their values. See whether they are actively being searched together: If so, suggests high Value Alignment.

Step 4: Measure your idea’s Context Density: Number of shared mental connections.

Step 5: Measure your idea’s Novelty: How new your idea will be perceived.

Step 6: Find the Path of High Authority: The medium and agents that will best spread your story.

Thanks for reading. Are you finding the System of Stories useful? Perhaps you thought it could be improved? We’d love to hear your feedback. You can reach Ben directly here or on Twitter (@benbradbury_). You can reach Zowie on Twitter (@zowielangdon) or via his blog Eclectic Rhetoric.