Bookend Your Next Talk with Proverbs

 

So, you have a big idea, need to share it with an audience, and are looking to structure your talk. How do you choose a beginning, middle, and end? Have you considered using the StoryHow™ PSP method?

In my recent book, The Proverb Effect, I teach how old proverbs have helped teachers teach and students learn for thousands of years. Something in their linguistic structure gives proverbs the unique capability to act as both premise and conclusion. PSP uses this dual capability to open your talk using proverb as a premise, follow it with story-based examples, then wrap it all up by repeating the proverb as a conclusion. PSP helps you open and close strong.

For example, let’s use PSP to structure a talk about the power of persistence.

The method is effective because the human brain is comfortable listening to stories and proverbs are the ultimate long-stories short.

The first example used an old proverb, but perhaps you want to use one of your own. Here’s an example of one of my PSP talks.

Let’s say that I want to share the big idea that people will only join your cause if they can relate personally with it.

Give it a try. Use PSP to structure your next talk using the following steps:

  1. Convert that big idea into a proverb
  2. Open your presentation with it
  3. Offer evidence through stories
  4. Cap off your talk by putting the word remember before your proverb

Give PSP a try and let me know how it worked out.

Storytellers Avoid Distractions

 

One of my movie-watching pet peeves is non-musician actors playing instruments. My issue usually manifests itself as a mismatch between the video and soundtrack. For example, as a percussionist, I’m highly sensitive to non-musician drummers waving their arms without hitting anything, or even worse, striking cymbals, snare drums or tom-toms out of sync with the soundtrack. And don’t even get me started about non-musician guitar players. There is nothing more frustrating than watching an actor strumming clumsily while sliding his lifeless hand along the guitar’s neck without any attempt at playing a chord. Such distractions negatively impact my willingness to suspend belief.

All storytellers must fix story problems. In the case of the non-musician actor, visual storytellers must find a movie-magic way to cover up the fact that the actor can’t play. One technique is to hide the musician’s hands, either by using an obstructed camera angle (behind the piano), or a tight shot on the hands of a “stunt musician.” Both techniques, however, tend to draw my attention to the problem as I want to see a full-frame shot of the character playing.

I’ve always wondered, why can’t they just teach the actor how to play something—ANYTHING—to augment the various cuts with at least one full-frame shot? Anyone can learn to play a few guitar chords or play a simple drum beat for a few seconds.

Non-musician actors aren’t the only distractions that pull me out of a story. Consider these other distracting storyteller fixes:

1. The antagonist needs a mysterious device that can be used to destroy the world. What’s the easiest way to go? Use a “microchip.”

2. A crime fighter reviews video footage of a getaway car. The storyteller chooses between two uninspired ways to extract information from the video: a) zoom in to read a perfectly clear version of the license plate (which is impossible from a picture-resolution perspective) or b) have the character acknowledge the zooming-in problem, but can “clean it up” through magical image processing software…or a microchip!

3. And my all-time favorite…the cops are stumped for clues, so, they approach some clairvoyant petty thief. “Word on the street,” the informant says, “is that Mr. Big is gonna hit the bank tonight at midnight.” Really? Mr. Big shares such information with the guy selling stolen watches on the corner?

Storytellers have an obligation to hold their readers attention, thus must solve their problems in a believable way. Ask yourself, does my story have too much detail, too few characters, or too many plot twists? Are the solutions to my story problems realistic or do they cause distractions? Tackling these issues now will save much grief in the future.

 

Photo Credit: Mayer, Frank Blackwell. The Continentals / FBM. , 1875. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2006680120/.

Less Convincing, More Conveying

 

Susan Carnicero is a former CIA agent who specializes in spotting deception. I first learned of her through a YouTube video of her teaching how to tell if someone is lying. One of the deception techniques jumped out at me. People who lie convince while those telling the truth convey.

The distinction resonated with me. I once had an old boss who always said, “We need to manage the customer’s expectations.” I’ve always hated that statement and now understood why. He wanted us to convince while I like to convey.

Susan explains that “…a convincing statement is the strongest arrow…” in a liar’s quiver, because “we all want to be convinced.” We want to believe that all people are good and that they’re always telling us the truth.”

For example, there are only two appropriate answers to the question, “Did you steal the merchandise?” Yes or no. However, a liar might say something like, “I’ve been loyal to this company for so long; I’ve never given you any reason to think that I’m a thief; or how could you ask me something like that?” Notice that none of these responses contain a denial. The person is trying to convince not convey.

My former boss sees marketing’s role as one to convince as opposed to convey. Convincing copy is easily identifiable through an abundance of hyphenated terms like: world-class, state-of-the-art, easy-to-use, thought-leader, industry-leading, leading-edge, etc… All are designed to convince not convey.

Susan leaves us with one last thing to consider when folks lay it on too thickly by invoking God’s name, swearing on a relative’s grave, or using hyphenated marketing terms.  “Convincing statements sound so true, or in this case, irrefutable.” But they still don’t answer the question.

The next time your write some marketing copy, ask yourself the following question. Am I trying to convince or convey? If it’s the former, try rewriting for the latter.

 

Photo Credit: Jim Thompson under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

 

Storytellers Break the Rules

 

In 1959, a group of advertising execs from Young and Rubicam visited a thirty-three-year-old radio and recording artist for help. Their client, Kaiser Aluminum Foil, remained stuck at five percent market share because by the time local grocers had stocked their shelves with foil from market leaders Reynolds and Alcoa, no room existed for Kaiser.

Y&R didn’t approach Stan Freberg for his expertise in selling thinly rolled metals. They sought the satirist who single-handedly turned Madison Avenue upside down with his outlandish idea that commercials could actually entertain audiences instead of simply assaulting them with hyperbole.

Freberg recommended a series of commercials that encouraged customers to ask their local grocers to carry Kaiser foil. The series would follow the trials of Clark, a down-in-his-luck Kaiser Aluminum Foil salesman, who battled grocers daily for shelf space. Here’s a script snippet from one of these commercials.1

The scene opens with Clark coming home after a hard day’s work. Soap opera music plays in the background as he describes his bad day to his wife.

WIFE: (SOB) Then this means I won’t be able to have my operation!

One of Clark’s children overhears the conversation and interjects:

CHILD: (IN A SMALL WISTFUL VOICE) Did you bring me some new shoesies, Daddy?”

CLARK: Ummm…Daddy doesn’t have any money for shoesies these days…because the mean old grocers won’t stock Daddy’s foil.

When Freberg finished pitching the script, a few chuckles were drowned out by protests. Some Y&R execs worried about offending local grocers while others questioned a commercial that openly branded Kaiser as an underdog.

“You didn’t go to the Harvard Business School, did you?”2 one of the execs asked.

Freberg hadn’t.

“Well I was sure of that,” the executive snorted. “If you had, they would have taught you one of the primary rules of marketing: Advertising cannot force distribution.”3

History always repeats itself. There was a time when we knew with certainty that the world was flat, the sun revolved around the earth, and advertising couldn’t force distribution. But we also know that testing old rules frequently leads to new ones. Kaiser Aluminum Foil authorized the series, the company added 43,000 new distribution outlets, and Harvard Business School was forced to revise its curriculum.

The best storytellers break the rules. What rules can you break today?

 

Photo Credit: Publicity photo of American satirist Stan Freberg. Public Domain

Notes:

  1. Stan Freberg, The It Only Hurts When I Laugh (New York: Times Books, 1988), p.159.
  2. It only hurts when I laugh, p. 162
  3. It only hurts when I laugh, p. 162

Wanna be a storyteller? Be careful what you ask for

 

To most, storytelling is a job or a hobby. To others, it’s a vocation. While all three come with benefits, vocational storytellers sacrifice the most to hone their craft. They trade living-in-the-moment for the acuity to capture that moment. In other words, vocational storytellers remove themselves from active participation in an event to observe it passively. And while being a vocational storyteller has made me a better communicator, I frequently find myself as more of a student of life as opposed to a participant in it. As a result, it’s hard to lose myself in any moment because I fear missing an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of it.

About ten years ago, my wife and two teenage children were sitting at a sidewalk restaurant table. As happens all too frequently, my mind wandered away from the conversation and to a small bird walking on the concrete. Something about the way the bird’s head rocked back and forth caught my attention, and after careful study, I realized that its head bobbed twice for every step it took. For example, if the bird’s head came forward as it planted its left foot, it would rock back then return just as its right foot hit the ground. The bird’s head bobbed twice for every step it took.

That’s when I heard my family snickering. “Earth to Dad,” my daughter said, interrupting my daydream. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with a family that accepts my peculiarities and can keep me grounded through some good-natured ribbing– so much so that, to this day, every time they catch me living out-of-the-moment, they drag me back in by referring to the incident. “Dad, are you trying to figure out how birds walk again?”

So, you wanna be a storyteller? Excellent. I welcome you to one of the world’s most eclectic groups. Now you have a decision to make. Which subgroup will you choose: hobby, job, or vocation? There’s no wrong answer. All can be excellent communicators. Just understand that if you choose to take the sacred vows of vocation, you’ll need to make sacrifices to reap its vast rewards. You’ll need to trade living life in-the-moment for the deep focus required to describe it.

But, before I scare you off, know that with great sacrifice comes great benefits.  A well-written story will warm your soul like nothing else can…well, at least until you start writing the next one.

 

Photo Credit: Detroit Publishing Co., Copyright Claimant, and Publisher Detroit Publishing Co. Feeding the pigeons, Boston Common. Boston Boston. Massachusetts United States, None. [Circa between 1910 and 1920] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016812264/.

 

 

Story is the shell…not the nut

 

A couple of months ago, my grown daughter prefaced something with, “I forget the story, but this is what I took away from it.”

Her statement gave me pause because it changed my view on the relationship between message and story. Previously, I saw story as a permanent vehicle that delivered meaning from one person to another. Afterward, I saw story as more temporary–and I must admit–I didn’t like this revelation. I work hard to weave messages into my stories and have always considered them inseparable. But now, to think that messages could survive the stories that carried them? That was troublesome.

Then, upon further reflection, I realized that I was being selfish.

For the past three years, I’ve used this little corner of cyberspace to preach how storytellers must have empathy for their audiences. If I’m truly willing to follow my own advice, then I must admit that the audience cares more about the message than the story. As a result, rather than grieving the loss of a story, I should be celebrating the successful delivery of its message.

The role of any story is to pass meaning from one person to another. Good stories present the right words at the right time to both invoke and hold an audience’s interest long enough for them to make meaning. If that happens and wisdom is passed, does the delivery mechanism’s fate really matter? And to expand upon that concept, when enlightened audience members decide to pass their newfound wisdom onto others, do they need the original story to do so, or perhaps it’s best that they wrap the message into stories of their own?

It’s not about the story; it’s about the moral of the story.

The story is a shell whose sole purpose is to deliver the nut. It’s designed to last for as long as it takes to deliver its precious cargo, whether that’s to the ground where it grows roots or to a hungry mouth. Either way, the shell is cracked and discarded. That’s life. Some things give their lives for the sake of others and stories are no different.

The message is the nut. The story is the shell. And that’s alright by me.

 

Photo Credit: Horydczak, Theodor, Approximately, photographer. Animals. Squirrel side view, eating nut. Washington D.C, None. ca. 1920-ca. 1950. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/thc1995010295/PP/.