Seeds are not an obvious inspiration for thought leadership. Thor Hanson’s The Triumph of Seeds is also not the most obvious book on seeds. nevertheless, the book holds a surprising number of useful ideas for thought leaders. Here are a few that struck us as noteworthy.
The book tells the story of seeds, in a way that appeals to non-specialist readers. As Mark Kurlansky’s review for the New York Times makes clear, this is not your standard dry-as-dust scientific tome. Instead, it is a story: the story of seeds from the emergence of seed-bearing plants back in the Carboniferous period, right through to the development of seed banks and why they work. As humans, we are hard-wired to like stories. Thought leaders who develop their story-telling muscles are much more likely to engage their audience effectively.
The Triumph of Seeds uses plain language and metaphors to demystify the topic. Most people who read The Triumph of Seeds will not be botanists, or even necessarily familiar with more than basic biology. However, Hanson uses plain language to ensure that the book is relatable. For example, he explains biological terms in simple language, and also uses colloquial language such as ‘don’t’ and ‘wasn’t’. This serves to make the book more readable and relatable.
The book uses metaphors to make ideas simpler to understand. We have talked before about the value of metaphors and analogies in explaining complex ideas and engaging audiences. Hanson uses them to full effect in The Triumph of Seeds. For example, in talking about the three parts of a seed (embryo, nutrient tissue and coat), he describes them as being like a baby, the baby’s lunch, and a protective shell. He then goes on to explain that in most seeds, the coat opens, the baby slowly eats its lunch, and then grows. However, in some seeds, the baby eats its lunch before the coat opens. The picture is immediately clear.
The book also uses common experiences to illustrate points. A bit like metaphors, relating ideas to our own experience can help us to grasp the finer details. For example, Hanson explains that anyone who has ever eaten peanuts or walnuts will know what he means by ‘seed leaves’ (the embryonic leaves that develop when ‘the baby eats its lunch before the coat opens’), because they are the two halves of the nut.
The “life cycle’ of seeds have striking similarities with ideas. A seed needs certain conditions to germinate and grow. For example, all seeds need water. Some also need to be exposed to fire, or a period of cold, before they will germinate. Until they get the right conditions, they will be dormant. If they never get the right conditions, they will eventually die. Ideas, too, need fertile conditions in which to grow: minds and cultures that are prepared to accept them.
Seeds also need a way of dispersing. Some spread on the wind, and others are spread by birds, insects or animals. They have therefore evolved to match the conditions they require. For example, wind-spread seeds tend to be light and fluffy, and the seedheads are often held high above the plant. Seeds spread by animals are often contained in brightly-coloured and sweet-tasting cases (fruits) to attract the animals. Ideas also need a way of spreading. They need to be sticky enough to attach themselves to your readers’ minds, and attractive enough to make readers want to share them with others.
Seeds can remain dormant for a surprisingly long time. Hanson includes a story about archaeologists in the 1960s finding a sealed jar of date seeds in the ruins of a temple in Judea. These were thought to date from around 73AD and turned out to be fertile when planted. Ideas may need a while to find the perfect conditions—but when they find those conditions, they will grow. Sometimes you just need to wait for the right moment.
A nod to darwin
The final message is that seeds are ubiquitous and essential. Over time, they have evolved to find ways to survive and thrive. It is a wise thought leader who recognises that their ideas also need to evolve to reflect new information.