I hadn’t anticipated just how mournful I would feel when I heard the news that Stephen Hawking had died. I felt it personally, as if he’d been someone I’d known and spent time with. As I began to reflect on my feelings about his death, I realized that his impact on me—given that we’d never even met—had everything to do with how well he knew how to tell a story.
Stephen Hawking was an unprecedented inspirational force on this planet, and he touched people of all ages and backgrounds across the world. His dedication and positive resolve were seemingly superhuman, yet his humor made him one of the most down-to-earth scientists in history. This astounding balance fueled the unforgettable magic behind his storytelling, and solidified his unparalleled legacy in human history.
Stephen Hawking’s Impact Was Born of a Single Choice
When he was diagnosed with ALS in 1963 at the young age of 21, with a prognosis of just two more years to live, Hawking could have given up. He could have succumbed to the totally debilitating mental and physical challenges ahead of him, and that would have been more than understandable to anyone.
But instead of withdrawing from his education at Oxford, he immersed himself in his work even further, going on to complete his PhD at Cambridge. He later became the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, which some describe as Britain’s most distinguished chair. Somehow in his diagnosis he’d found a renewed sense of purpose in life. Hawking once said that everything that happened since his diagnosis was a bonus.
And what a bonus indeed!
A Visionary Approach
Hawking not only continued with his work, but he found a way to communicate what he was learning to others in a visionary yet accessible way. He used examples that drew on real-life objects and scenarios to explain some of the most confounding 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 is Stephen Hawking explaining black holes in 90 seconds:
He leaves off with a quote so compelling it manages to capture the human connection in a scientific explanation of how black holes work, if there could ever be such a thing: “If you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up. There’s a way out.”
This beautiful anecdote illuminates the nature of his own personal struggle and brings his unique story into a hopeful perspective simultaneously.
Hawking was constantly weaving the world of everyday experiences together with theoretical physics. No matter how fascinating he found his subjects as they were, he knew he would lose his audience without that real-world connection. Hawking found a way to transform the seemingly cold universe of physics and equations into emotive and meaningful poetry. He was a master at conjuring colorful stories from the interplay of gravitational forces or the movement 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 aptitude for storytelling was his humor. Despite battling one of the most challenging diseases and studying some of the most theoretical subject matter in existence, 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 have ever met.”
Even when admitting defeat after years defending one of his theories, Hawking did it in a humorous way. Ian Sample, writing for the Guardian, shares this amusing anecdote: It was in a pub with his students discussing their work where he chose to make the important announcement. He turned his speech synthesizer up 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 information loss doesn’t occur.”
Hawking’s humor was an important part of why he was loved and respected by so many. It’s also what made his storytelling so rich.
Research has shown that humorous content creates a memorable, positive emotional connection with an audience, which makes it very shareable in a digital age. Humor is a highly relatable quality, which is important when you’re talking about things that would ordinarily make most people’s eyes gloss over.
Image attribution: Pete Souza
How to Tell a Story Like Stephen Hawking
Sometimes our products and services may seem mundane and small in the greater scheme of things. But Hawking was constantly surrounded by the very smallest of things (subatomic particles) and yet he was able to see great parallels to everyday life.
One of Hawking’s greatest challenges every single day was to not let his physical circumstances get in the way of his mind. He used theoretical physics and cosmology as an escape, as we might use our own visual and verbal creativity to daydream. In other words, he refused to let physical limitations dictate the way he thought.
Marketers and creatives could take a tip from this and try to escape the physical confines of products and services when strategizing about how to tell a story that aims at something bigger. What other abstract dimensions might we envision? What metaphors, what values, what patterns and parallels? Hawking taught us all just how far you can go when you allow yourself the freedom to daydream.
He also showed us how much more relatable you can be when you introduce everyday experiences and humor into your storytelling. This is particularly important for companies that produce un-sexy products or highly technical materials or services. Even those clients and customers who expect you to be serious enjoy a bit of humor once in a while. We’re all human, after all.
But perhaps the most inspirational aspect of Hawking’s storytelling came from his unwavering personal spirit. He was courageous, dedicated, and hopeful in spite of it all. Think about that next time you’re having an off day at work. Consider how lucky you are to be able to hold a pen, for instance. Take a moment to step back and gain a greater perspective on your life and your work, and you may find inspiration returning once again. Hawking’s physical presence may be gone, but his spirit is larger than life in our minds, just as it always was in his.
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Featured image attribution: Jim Campbell
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BiographyMore Content by Nicola Brown