Storytellers Train Elephants

 

You’re in a sales meeting where everything’s going well. Then, you say something that seems innocuous, but it turns out to be an inflection point in the conversation. Out of nowhere, the client clams up, suddenly “remembers” another meeting, and hastens your exit. As you walk to your car you wonder, “What happened?”

The short answer? You were probably run over by an elephant.

In How to Tell a Story in a Half-Second, we showed how the brain’s right hemisphere, the emotional side of your brain, is an order of magnitude faster than the logical, left hemisphere. When dealing with new information, our emotions command an unfair advantage over our rational thoughts. Therefore, if we want to win the trifecta of the human thought race, we must bet: instinct for the win, emotion to place, and logic to show.

I’ve always thought of this process as thinking fast and slow, but had no way to articulate the raw power of the fast parts. Then I read a great metaphor for the power imbalance between the two: the elephant and the rider.

Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, uses an elephant to represent the instinct and emotional side of the human thought. The metaphor works because elephants are both powerful and have inertia. Once an elephant gets going, it can’t be stopped instantaneously. Instead, it must be steered by what Haidt calls the rider, the logical side of human thought who hangs on for dear life while trying to maneuver the elephant toward a specific destination.

While most communicators want to build their messages on pure logic, Haidt suggests that we “…talk to the elephant first. If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch—a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed.” 1

Elephants are massive and powerful, yet they can be spooked by a mouse. Once they get going, they’re hard to slow down. Storytellers that ignore them are advised to proceed at their own communications peril.

Haidt believes “…that the Humean model (reason is a servant) fits the facts better than the Platonic model (reason could and should rule) or the Jeffersonian model (head and heart are co-emperors).” 2

In other words, reason is the heart’s servant. And while our ability to overcome both instinct and emotion with logic separates us from the beasts, we are still driven by them. Our job as storytellers is to prevent startled elephants from running over our audiences.

 

 

Notes:

1. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2013), 59.

2. Haidt: 79.

Photo Credit: Bain News Service, Publisher. “Hattie” and Hattie Snyder trainer and elephant. , . [No Date Recorded on Caption Card] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014680284/.

Storytelling Starts with Verbs and Nouns

 

I must have watched the movie, Apollo 13, a dozen times, without noticing two, curious-looking words on the lunar module’s control panel: verb and noun. A simple Google-search revealed that they belonged to the DSKY display of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). Not only did DSKY use an ingenious way to squeeze as much functionality out of a tiny computer with little memory, but it also taught me a fundamental lesson in human communications.

Computers execute commands and the Apollo design engineers chose to segment them into two parts: what the astronauts wanted to the AGC to do (verb) followed by a qualifier (noun) to act upon. In grammatical terms, the AGC was designed to perform a predicate on a subject. Astronauts used two tables that correlated numbers with specific verbs and nouns. By mixing and matching these numbers, astronauts could issue commands to perform a multitude of tasks.

For example, if an astronaut wanted to display the present time, they’d lookup the verb for display (VERB 06) and the noun for time (NOUN 36). Therefore, by punching-in 06 followed by ENTER for the verb, and then 36 followed by another ENTER to set the noun, the AGC would execute a program to display the current time from the AGC’s clock. The brilliance of the VERB/NOUN system allowed astronauts to express their wants succinctly.

Let’s try a less cosmic example. Imagine that you’re in a foreign city, have minimal understanding of the language, yet want to know where the closest pub is. Essentially, you need to find a way to execute the “Find Pub” program by answering two questions:

  1. Verb Question: What do you want to do? Drink
  2. Noun Question: What do you want to drink? Beer

The odds are that if you presented the sentence fragment “DRINK BEER” to a native speaker, they’d execute the “Find Pub” routine and point you in the right direction.

Now let’s put this concept into the context of storytelling. If a story is the result of people pursuing what they want, consider the wants of each Star Wars character expressed as a VERB/NOUN combination:  

  • Luke Skywalker: Destroy/Death Star
  • Yoda: Teach/Luke
  • Princess Leia: Resist/Empire

In addition, the premise of entire movies can be boiled down to their VERB/NOUN essentials:

  • Apollo 13: Get/Home
  • Rudy: Make/Team
  • Smokey and the Bandit: Win/Bet
  • Ocean’s Eleven: Rob/Casino

 

So, you want to tell a story, build a presentation, or create a marketing campaign. Start by taking a page from the Apollo spacecraft designers. Can you describe what you want through a simple combination of a verb and a noun?

 

Notes:

The Apollo Guidance Computer: A Kinder, Gentler Introduction

 

Unbelief is the Friction that Keeps Persuasion in Check

 

I get storytelling inspiration from two sources: life experiences and books like:

  • Think and Grow Rich, which taught me about the power of persistence. I used it’s “master mind” concept to discuss a technique for writing dialog.
  • Why Things Bite Back is a study of unintended consequences. For example, while the invention of car alarms reduced the number of stolen parked cars, it increased the number of car-jackings.
  • Unlimited Wealth discusses the concept of abundance. Rather than seeing life as a zero-sum game, there are actual unlimited natural resources because the technology of the day defines what a resource is. Consider that before the internal combustion engine, oil was a sticky nuisance that landowners needed to deal with.

Last month I added another book to my favorite list. While Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss teaches about the art of negotiation, it also provides storytellers tremendous insight into the human condition. One such fact is that people are predisposed to disbelieve. As the author states proverbially, “Unbelief is the friction that keeps persuasion in check.”1 Essentially, we’re skeptics, which forces a persuader to work. If successful, overcoming healthy skepticism hardens the idea and makes it defensible from future attacks.

Last week we discussed how persuasion could be thwarted by a “bug” in our cognitive programming–the fact that we are predisposed to accept negative criticism in higher proportions than positive reinforcement. This bug allows a naysayer to easily transform healthy skepticism into the staunchest form of pessimism by simply attacking a persuader’s character.

The study shook me to my storytelling core. As a confessed optimist, I couldn’t find a way around the dilemma. But that’s where Chris Voss offers a more optimistic perspective on the bug. “Our job as persuaders,” he says, “ is easier than we think. It’s not to get others believing what we say. It’s just to stop them unbelieving.”2

Such advice falls into my wheelhouse as a storyteller as he suggests that the best way to get people from unbelieving is by listening empathetically —something that I’ve stressed incessantly in this blog. The most important trait that a storyteller can have is empathy for one’s audience, because empathy works on three levels: emotional, intellectual, and if done right, shows the audience what’s inside the heart of the persuader.

The naysayers have the advantage. They can dismantle an idea without the intellectual rigor required to create one. However, just because they have an advantage, don’t think for a second that the advantage is superior. On the contrary, storytellers have both the ability and responsibility to counteract these intellectual shortcuts.

It just takes work. But great storytellers have never shied away from that. Right?

 

 

Photo Credit: Man, Possibly a Castaway or Shipwrecked Sailor, Standing on Rocky Shore Seeing a Ship on the Horizon; May Show Signs of Disbelief at the Prospect of Being Rescued. , None. [Place not identified: publisher not identified, between 1870 and 1930] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016649130/.

Notes:

  1. Voss, Christopher, and Tahl Raz. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It. London: RH Business Books, 2016. Kindle location 2585
  2. Voss. Never Split the Difference. Kindle location 2584       

Storytellers use Apophenia

 

Have you ever stared at a piece of wood, a marble slab, or a cloud formation and saw a face? Pareidolia–the ability to see faces in random patterns–is a special case of a larger phenomenon called apophenia, which results from our brains being on a perpetual mission to find patterns in anything. Our brains are programmed to find a reason for everything, whether there is one or not. Consider that the roots of all superstitions, conspiracy theories, and urban legend result from someone attributing meaning to random events.

Apophenia is both blessing and curse for storytellers. It’s a curse when you fail to explain a new concept to someone adequately. Without a clear understanding of your idea, the recipient will likely cram your data into their own meaning model…which more than likely will be erroneous. The curse of apophenia is that we believe what we believe–evidence be damned. The recent outbreak of measles in Washington is a direct result of apophenia, where a significant number of parents decided not to vaccinate their children from a highly contagious disease based on connecting data dots incorrectly.

And yet, apophenia can also be used as a blessing. The ability to create characters that see more meaning than exists frequently leads to a comedy of errors. For example, in The Man Who Knew Too Little, a hapless American thinks he’s participating in an interactive play yet has actually stumbled into a real-life spy thriller. He thinks that he’s playing a fun role while trained killers think he’s the second coming of James Bond. Or the movie, War Games, where a high school hacker breaks into a government computer, only to have his actions interpreted as those supporting a Russian conspiracy to start World War III.  Both storytellers used the phenomenon of apophenia to have the characters misinterpret actions and motivations.

And while apophenia can be used to write a screwball comedy, it can also be used in business storytelling. In your industry, do people see patterns that do not exist? Are these patterns generally accepted as fact? Perhaps you need to point them out? Or, perhaps you can use apophenia to lead an audience to a false conclusion to demonstrate a cautionary tale of how easy it is to be mislead. Either way, apophenia is now a powerful tool in your storytelling toolbox.

 

Photo Credit: This photo comes from Paul B’s Flickr channel who offered is under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.

 

 

 

Storytellers use the Three Red Herrings

 

We were taught as children to always tell the truth because truth-telling is good and lying is bad. Then, as we grew up, we learned that this truth thing wasn’t so black and white. Evidently, sometimes deception is not only acceptable, but it’s also appreciated.

For example:

  • When a nurse distracts a child who’s terrified about an impending injection
  • When a comedian sets up a punchline
  • When a magician uses sleight of hand to create an illusion

And so we adapted, telling truths and non-truths, depending upon situations. I’ve learned that the best way to distinguish between the two is to consider the Benefit Rule1 by asking:

Who benefits from the lie, the deceiver or the deceived?

Think about a man who encourages his girlfriend to spend the evening with her friends so that he can cheat on her. Now consider a man orchestrating the same ruse to occupy her time while he prepares a marriage proposal. The same deception scenario produces different ethical results based on the deceiver’s motivations. If the beneficiary of the deception is the deceiver, it’s unethical. If the deceived received the benefits, it’s ethical.

The best storytellers deceive. Without the ability to do so, stories become predictable and boring. And so, storytellers toil to balance both the information and the timing of that information to keep things interesting. George Lucas, for example, did so by hiding the fact that Luke and Leia were siblings and that Darth Vader was their father.

So, how can we become masters at ethical deception? The answer comes from an unexpected place–our judicial system.

Witnesses in an American courtroom take an oath “…to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” This seemingly innocuous phrase contains a beautifully complex concept that describes three distinct classes of deception.

“All the lies that have ever been told or ever will be told fall into three categories, or strategies: lies of commission, lies of omission, and lies of influence.” 2

  • A lie of commission is a bald-faced, flat-out untruth
  • A lie of omission is subtler. Rather than telling the whole truth, the deceiver selectively reveals verifiable facts, yet omits the less convenient ones. For example, consider the teenager who broke curfew. When asked, “Where were you?” she answers with a verifiable “I was at the library,” which is true. She just omitted the part about the house party she attended afterwards.
  • A lie of influence (which I prefer to call a lie of conflation) is the most complex of the three. It involves adding extra facts to obfuscate the truth. For example, when asked, “Did you steal the cookie?” the confectionery bandit explains, “You know that I don’t like sweets. Remember that time in the bakery?”

The best storytellers deceive ethically. They use the three red herrings: commission, omission, and conflation to keep an audience on its toes. If done right and the audience benefits from the deception, they’ll thank you for it.

Now it’s your turn. The next time you tell a story, how will you use the three red herrings?

Notes:

  1. Ron Ploof, The Proverb Effect (Aliso Viejo, CA: OC New Media, LLC, 2018) p. 22. 
  2. Susan M. Carnicero and Philip Houston, Spy the Lie: Advanced Information Collection (Columbus, OH: Ohio State Bar Association CLE, 2012), Kindle Location#: 606.

 


Oh, and if you were looking for the answer to the last week’s cliff hanger…I don’t own a patent. 😊

Storytelling Lessons from the Game: Two Truths and a Lie

 

One of my favorite icebreakers is a game called Two Truths and a Lie, where you share three different “facts” about yourself with only two being true. Then you sit back and watch the group try to uncover the lie.

Wanna play? Here are my three:

  1. I have a United States patent
  2. I’ve had a bullet hit inches from my head
  3. I’ve used the Heimlich Maneuver on a choking victim

I love this game is because it’s packed with storytelling nuggets. For example, those trying to uncover my lie will say things like:

  • “Ron’s an electrical engineer, so he could have a patent.”
  • “He lives and works in an affluent part of Southern California, so where would a bullet come from? I don’t think he’s ever been on tour in the military.”
  • “Does Ron look like the type of person who’d take a CPR class?”

Two Truths and a Lie offers wonderful lessons for budding storytellers. The story statements reveal just enough information to make the listeners want to know more. It creates mysteries which require skills in both inductive and deductive reasoning. Two Truths and a Lie works as an icebreaker because it’s built upon many of the story techniques used by the masters.

So, which of my three statements is a lie? Hmm…it’s time to teach you another storytelling technique called the cliffhanger. You’ll just have to wait for my next post.

Sorry. Not sorry.

In the meantime, what are your two truths and a lie?

 

Image Credit: Alophe, Lithographer. Le femme révées Ideal beauties ; Contemplation = contemplation / / compose & lithog. par M. Alophe ; Imp. lith. de Jacomme & Cie. , ca. 1851. Paris ; Berlin ; New York: Publie par Goupil & Cie. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/99471879/.