Inspiration is the driving force behind accomplishing anything worthwhile, says Michael Fanuele, founder of a new inspiration-led consultancy Talk Like Music. The former Chief Creative Officer at General Mills believes everyone has the awesome power to inspire within them, it’s a skill that we can learn if we adopt an emotional approach, quiet our reason, and express our passion.
Here Fanuele talked to Content Magazine about what inspiration is, how it works and why it matters.
Content: What is inspiration, and why is it so powerful?
Michael: Etymologically, ‘inspiration’ means ‘to inhale breath’, but traditionally it’s always been about inhaling a divine breath, the spirit of God. It’s the word that’s used at the very beginning of the King James Bible when God breathes life into Adam, but, of course, traditionally it’s also about the Muses in Greek mythology, the Muses who breathed spirit and power into bards and artists to tell stories and sing songs.
What fascinates me about the Muses, though, is that their superpower wasn’t just in helping people create; their superpower was actually in helping people forget. They’re the daughters of Zeus and the goddess of memory. In Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’, they talked about their ability to help you forget what essentially are the woes and the limitations of your real life. So, at heart inspiration is this amazing force that comes from beyond, helps you forget all the limitations of reality, and creates a world anew. It’s got a touch of delusion which is deeply, deeply powerful.
When I talk about inspiration today, I think of it as arousing people’s emotions to the point of conviction. We do a lot of things in our lives, but we don’t do them all with conviction. Inspiration drives conviction, which gives us a commitment to the ‘stick-to-it-ness’ that actually gets things done when the world throws its stupid barriers in the way.
What role has inspiration played in making things happen, instigating change, or persuading people to take action?
I hope I’m not being too hyperbolic when I suggest that behind every great accomplishment in the history of humanity lies inspiration. Anything that takes hard work requires emotional engagement, emotional arousal, and conviction. That stuff doesn’t come through your thinky-thinky prefrontal cortex. It comes through your far deeper, more animalistic mechanisms. That’s where inspiration works.
We know that inspiration stirs armies to battle, that it’s birthed masterpieces, that it’s helped entrepreneurs motivate teams and create companies. It’s helped millions of people change their lifestyle, exercise, eat better, give up drugs and drinking. Inspiration really is the force that makes humans move.
Bain & Company did a study just a few years ago where they studied hundreds of companies. What they concluded is that an ‘inspired employee’ is two times more productive than an uninspired employee. That essentially means, if you could inspire your employees, you need half of them.
Can you give an example of when inspiration has been used by marketers to drive success?
It’s funny, but what strikes me most about inspiration in the world of marketing is how little marketers use it. We still cling to the belief—and I guess it comes straight out of ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ in the 1950s—that marketing is a persuasive activity; that if we could get the right message, the right proposition, and dress it up with some feeling, and emotion, and some jazz hands, we could move people. But still fundamentally we believe that it’s an exercise in persuasion.
The IPA did a study over the last decade where it looked at 800 effective acts of marketing. It judged effectiveness very, very simply: did this marketing occur and did sales increase? What it found was that the most effective kind of marketing is what it called ‘purely emotional’, which is very different than the balance of emotional and rational that 99% of marketing still is. Again, it’s very difficult for marketers—especially agencies, who think they need to convince, and persuade, and argue with their clients—to embrace the delusion, the pure emotion, the fancifulness that comes with inspiration, that inspiration demands.
Certainly, some brands have done this. I know it’s a big, fat cliché, but there’s a reason it’s a cliché to say that Nike is the most powerful marketer in history, because from the beginning they’ve done nothing but try to inspire the athlete in everybody. They’ve never once argued, or proved, or given you reasons to believe, or rational evidence about why what they make is superior to their next competitor.
What they’ve done is they’ve expressed their passion; they’ve expressed their emotion in a way that in your brain closes the loop on the issue of quality and product superiority. When they say they love athletes, when they say, “Witness these athletes,” professional or amateur, overweight or the finest specimens in the history of sport, you feel as if they’re a company who would never make something that is bad for an athlete.
How can marketers become more inspirational?
I’m really excited for the moment when marketers move their clients the way they say their clients should move their consumers, but that’s going to require real rethinking of the way we deal with our clients. I think strategy is amazing, but, when we present strategy in a strategic way, it has the unintended consequence of dampening the bravery and the boldness of clients whom we want to be brave and bold.
For me, the simple formula for inspiration is that it is passion minus reason. Passion minus reason equals inspiration. It’s not just enough to show your passion through your grand ambitions, your authenticity, your affection, but in some way you’ve got to short-circuit that prefrontal cortex. You’ve got to extract all of the arguing tendencies from a given discussion or a given moment. That’s what we, as an industry, need to work on with our clients. Let’s not get stuck in the muck and the mire of the strategy trap. Let’s start moving people.
Is there a science to inspiration? Can we learn to become inspiring?
For decades, real scientists didn’t study inspiration. They thought it was a flaky, artsy-fartsy, creative thing, something that came and went. They studied persuasion, motivation, rhetoric, oratory.
It’s only recently that scientists have begun to understand the neurological mechanism of inspiration, and it is our mirror neurons, so the neurons in our brain that help us learn by copying what we see. When a baby sees her mother move her mouth or throw a ball, that baby’s mirror neurons are fired, and she learns how to move her mouth or throw a ball.
What scientists have learned is that mirror neurons also mirror emotions and feeling. When you see Jennifer Lawrence sad, when you see a politician indignant, you feel sadness and indignation through your mirror neurons. It’s like some neuroscientists call these mirror neurons ‘Gandhi neurons’, because they’re the neurons that help us share one another’s feelings. These are the neurons that actually create empathy.
I’d suggest these are the neurons through which inspiration works. Very, very simply, when you express passion, people feel passion. That is the basic neurological mechanism of how inspiration works, which to me means every single human being can be inspiring.