I did not expect how sad I would feel when I heard the news that Stephen Hawking had died. I felt it personally as if he had been someone I knew and with whom I spent time. As I began to reflect on my feelings about his death, I realized that his influence on me – assuming we had never met – had to do with how well he knew how to tell a story.
Stephen Hawking was an unprecedented inspirational force on this planet, touching people of all ages and backgrounds around the world. His commitment and positive determination seemed to be superhuman, but his humor made him one of the most down-to-earth scientists in history. This amazing balance promoted the unforgettable magic behind his storytelling and consolidated his unprecedented legacy in human history.
Stephen Hawking's impact was born from a single choice
When he was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21
But instead of retiring from Oxford, he immersed himself in his work and went on to complete his Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge. He later became the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, which some refer to as Britain's most prestigious chair. Somehow he had found a new way of life in his diagnosis. Hawking once said that everything that has happened since his diagnosis was a bonus.
And what a bonus!
A Visionary Approach
Hawking not only continued his work, but also found a way to communicate with others in a visionary yet accessible way. He used examples based on real objects and scenarios to explain some of the most confusing scientific ideas about the universe. One of his biggest areas of interest was black holes, which are still one of the least understood phenomena in theoretical physics. Here Stephen Hawking explains the black holes in 90 seconds:
With a quote that is so convincing, he manages to grasp the human connection in a scientific explanation of how black holes work, if ever there could be such a thing: "If you feel in a black hole, do not give up. There is a way out."
This beautiful anecdote highlights the nature of his own personal struggle, bringing his unique story into a hopeful perspective at the same time.
Hawking constantly weaves the world of everyday experiences together with theoretical physics. No matter how intriguing he found his subjects to be as he was, he knew he would lose his audience without this real connection. Hawking found a way to transform the seemingly cold universe of physics and equations into emotional and meaningful poetry. He was a master at conjuring colorful stories of the interplay of gravitational forces or the motion of electrons.
He encouraged his global audience to look beyond themselves and their individual circumstances to find beauty and meaning in the world.
One of the most surprising elements of Hawking's brilliant ability to tell storytelling was his humor. Although he fought one of the most difficult diseases and studied some of the most theoretical subjects, Hawking had the sharpest and most unexpected sense of humor. Actor Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking in The Theory of Everything described him as "the funniest man I've ever met."
Even when Hawking, after years of defense, admitted one of his theories, he did so in a humorous way. Ian Sample, who writes for the Guardian shares this amusing anecdote: It was in a pub with his students discussing their work, where he made the important announcement. He turned his speech synthesizer to full volume and yelled, "I'm coming out!" When the whole pub fell silent, he clarified his statement, "I'm coming out and admitting that maybe there is no loss of information."
Hawkins humor was an important part of why he was loved and respected by so many. It's also what made his story so rich.
Research has shown that humorous content creates a memorable, positive emotional connection with an audience that makes it very divisible in the digital age. Humor is a highly accessible quality, which is important when you talk about things that would normally show the eyes of most people.
Image: Pete Souza
How to Tell a Story Like Stephen Hawking
Sometimes our products and services seem to be on a larger scale of things banal and small. But Hawking was constantly surrounded by the smallest things (subatomic particles), yet he saw great parallels to daily life.
One of Hawking's biggest challenges was not to be disturbed by his physical circumstances of his mind. He used theoretical physics and cosmology as escape because we could use our own visual and verbal creativity to dream. In other words, he refused to let physical constraints dictate, as he thought.
Marketers and creatives may take a hint and try to escape the physical limitations of products and services if they develop strategies to tell a story something bigger. What other abstract dimensions could we imagine? Which metaphors, which values, which patterns and parallels? Hawking has taught us all how far you can go if you allow yourself the freedom to dream.
He also showed us how much better you can identify with it by bringing everyday experiences and humor into your stories. This is especially important for companies that do not produce sexy products or high-tech materials or services. Even customers and customers who expect you to be serious enjoy a little humor from time to time. After all, we are all humans.
But perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Hawking's storytelling came from his unwavering personal spirit. He was courageous, committed and hopeful despite everything. Think about it the next time you have a day off. Consider how lucky you are, for example, to hold a pen. Take a moment to step back and get a better perspective on your life and work, and you may find inspiration again. Hawking's physical presence may have disappeared, but his mind is bigger than the life in our heads, as always in his mind.
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Featured Image Attribution: Jim Campbell