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Zebra or Peacock: which technique works best for your story?

Why do zebras have black and white stripes when they live in a green and brown savannah? Where’s the evolutionary advantage there?

It turns out zebras are camouflaged against the herd, not the environment. 

Blend In

A zebra can outrun a lion over a short sprint. Then he tires, and the lion catches up. Ouch. But if our zebra blends into a herd of indistinguishable zebras, he’ll escape. The lion is – in effect – forever chasing a series of fresh zebras.

Business jargon and buzzwords are zebra stripes. They allow us to blend into the herd.

Stand Out

A peacock’s tail is a massive risk. It slows him down and limits his flight. But it’s a sign of his genetic fitness, and that’s what lady peacocks are looking for.

Originality, humour and risk-taking are peacock tails. They allow us to stand out from the crowd.

Be a Story Chameleon

It’d be easy to say “Be more peacock!” but sometimes you need to blend in, for example, when you need build empathy and trust. So I advocate a Story Chameleon approach. Choose your story depending on your setting:

  • I need to blend in. Research your audience. Understand their habits, buzzwords and jargon. Tell your story in their words. Story-ish Conversations and Abstractions will help.
  • I need to stand out. Research your audience. Tell them something new, surprising and unexpected. Secrets & Puzzles and Story Hooks will help.


Storyteller Tactics I used to write this blog:

Shock of the Old: we’ve been watching animals for thousands of years. Our earliest cultural artefacts – cave paintings – are animal stories. So it’s a great place to seek old wisdom for a modern problem. 

Three is the Magic Number: Zebra, Peacock, Chameleon is a Goldilocks Three. One extreme, then the other, then the middle way.

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