Recently, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of people expressing versions of the same phrase:
“That’s an interesting question, Ron.”
At first I didn’t think much about it. But as I heard the question more frequently, I started wondering, “Why do they find my questions interesting?”
I kept coming back to the same answer: Storytellers are masters of making things interesting. Consider that a storyteller can keep you staring at a flickering screen for two hours in a darkened room filled with strangers. Story has the power to keep a group of squirrelly children fixated on a teacher reading a book to them. And story is the reason you’ll spend days or weeks digesting a three hundred page novel.
You see, storytellers know how to actuate the neurons responsible for a piquing a listener’s interest. And once you know this secret, you can too. So, do you want to know how to do the same?
It’s simple. Violate people’s expectations. Show them something that they didn’t expect. Zig when they expect you to zag. Whisper when they expect you to scream at the top of your lungs. Stand when they expect you to duck.
All stories start when someone’s expectations are violated and it can be tracked back to Kenn Adam’s trusty Story Spine:
Once upon a time,
Then one day,
And because of that,
And because of that,
And ever since that day.
Then one day separates ho-hum from interesting. Let’s try it out.
Once upon a time, Jane would drive to work
Everyday, she’d arrive on time
Then one day, she…
- Got a flat tire
- Decided to take a detour
- Got delayed by a rogue herd of goats
All stories start by violating someone’s expectations. And there’s a corollary to this rule: Anger piques when our metaphors are violated.
If you find yourself getting heated, it’s likely because someone violated a fundamental belief that you live by. Maybe you expected someone to act a certain way and yet they didn’t. Perhaps someone cut in line, spoke to you condescendingly, or acted recklessly, thus placing you or others in unnecessary danger. If someone violates a metaphor that guides your personal definition of right and wrong, your natural instinct will be to react swiftly and emotionally.
So, why are people finding my questions interesting? I guess because I’m injecting my experience as a storyteller into the conversation. I’m constantly trying to understand the motivations of the players involved. If a long-time satisfied customer suddenly changes behavior by making odd emotional requests, rather than reacting defensively, I’ll ask my colleagues questions like:
- What are they trying to accomplish with this request?
- What is the real source of their frustration?
- What core beliefs might we have violated accidentally?
I’m finding that this line of questioning helps my coworkers not only address the problem from a new perspective, but they also start asking their own interesting questions.
Photo Credit: Photograph of Army Air Corps pilots Maj. Reuben Fleet and Lt. George Boyle on May 15, 1918 ; National Postal Museum, Benjamin Lipsner Collection. Photographer: Unknown.
The presentation began as most do. The presenter began flipping through a series of PowerPoint slides that he’d pulled from the company’s internal marketing database. They contained all the traditional basics, including the dreaded We Are the World opening–ya know–the one that makes your company sound like a Clint Eastwood character in a spaghetti western?
Most of the time, customers sit dutifully through these sycophantic preambles…well, except for this day…when one of the customers decided to add color commentary.
“Yeah, we know that you’re the best. You wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
The presenter smiled and advanced to the next slide that talked about the company’s quality.
“Quality? Well, I sure hope so,” the customer said sarcastically.
The presenter advanced to the next slide that contained platitudes of industry dominance.
“Look, we know that you’re awesome and everyone loves you. Can we move on?” The now-emboldened customer proceeded to bark the word, “NEXT!” with each subsequent self-aggrandizing slide.
I find it astonishing that more than ten years into the Content Marketing movement, marketers haven’t relocated their We are the World sections to the appendices of their presentations. Is the information important? Sure. Purchasing from the industry leader is an important piece of information for a buyer–but only AFTER customers conclude that the product meets their requirements. Putting the bravado-cart before the functional-horse is not only unproductive, it’s disrespectful to audiences who are obviously no longer willing to sit passively.
Take a look at your most recent marketing presentations. Do they contain We are the World sections? If so, would it really hurt to move them to the appendix as backup sides?
Photo Credit: Sarony & Major, Lithographer. One of the news-b’hoys / Lith. of Sarony & Major. New York, 1847. New York: Published by T.W. Strong. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003664125/.
Have you ever stated your case so clearly that you knew with certainty that you nailed it? And while you were celebrating your superior communication achievement, have you ever found yourself standing in front of someone who just didn’t get it…at all? If so, you’ve probably fallen victim to a metaphorical mismatch.
Humans use metaphor–the ability to define one thing in terms of something totally different–to understand complex ideas. Essentially, we build upon the concepts learned through the human condition.
Think about the concept of time. Everyone knows what time is because we experienced it everyday. However, if I pressed you to define it, I bet you’d struggle. Exactly how does one describe something we can’t see, hear, smell, touch, or taste?
That’s where metaphor comes in. Rather than describing time directly, we represent it metaphorically through the various ways it affects our lives. For example, we know that time has:
- Inevitability: There’s nothing that we can do to stop it
- Motion: Time moves from the past, through the present, and into the future
- Direction: We can look back in time to see where we’ve been and forward to predict where we’ll be
- Duration: We’re accustomed to waiting for a process to finish
- Distance: We describe long time durations in terms of distance, such as looking far into the future or way back in the past
- Physical effect: We are born young and small, then grow up to become big and old
- Value: We know that our time is limited, and therefore is a precious commodity. We’re even paid for our time.
Try finding a few of your own.
The concept of time is so deep, it’s highly likely that all metaphorical references won’t be shared among all people. For example, an old person with less time in front of them may disagree with the statement that “There will be plenty of time to do X, Y, or Z.” . Or, no matter how much truth contained in “Don’t worry, things will get better with time,” someone who’s just suffered a tremendous loss won’t react well to the statement.
If your audience doesn’t believe in the metaphorical bricks that you have built your premise upon, your idea will not only be dead on arrival, but your ability to share your concept will suffer a setback. Consider the worldviews of our example old and young people. By definition, the former has more life experience than the latter, yet many of those life experiences don’t align. While the older person has lived through their twenties, they didn’t live through the twenties in this century. Thus, by choosing to communicate using 20th-century metaphors on 21st-century belief systems risks instant slap-backs, as in with the trendy “Okay, Boomer.”
Metaphor is a negotiation because it requires speakers to understand the worldview of their listeners before stating a case. Without understanding your listener’s metaphorical belief structure, it’s easy to step into a hornets nest of misinterpretation.
The conveyance of meaning is fickle because we each interpret information differently. Your goal as a communicator is to find the best metaphor through testing and conversation. If you can find a similar–not necessarily identical–life experience to build your complex concept upon, you’ll have found a successful frame of reference to base your argument.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Franklin and Richard Oswald discussing the Treaty of Peace Paris. , 1898. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004674949/.
Our goal at the StoryHow Institute is to be your one-stop resource to help you become a better communicator. We fulfilled our promise in 2019 through publishing 22 articles with much more planned for 2020. Next month, Ron will be releasing a new deck of cards called the Proverb Construction KitTM (finally!). He’s researching two new books and is writing a specialized version of the StoryHow PitchDeckTM.
We look forward to serving your storytelling needs in the new decade.
Here’s a recap of StoryHow in 2019:
1. Proverb Construction Step #3: The Finish
This final post in a three-part series helps put the finishing touches on your self-created proverbs.
2. Storytelling Lessons from the Game: Two Truths and a Lie
The Icebreaker, Two Truths and a Lie, teaches great lessons in storytelling.
3. Storytellers use the Three Red Herrings
Storytellers are experts in ethical deception.
4. Storytellers use Apophenia
Apophenia, the human’s propensity to see patterns where none exist, is a powerful tool for your storytelling toolbox.
5. How to tell a story in a half-second
It’s called the startle response, the most basic human response to unfamiliar stimuli. Not only does it form the basis of all human understanding, but it forms the roots of storytelling
6. Commonality is the Super Glue of Human Bonding
Ron looks in to why finding something in common with a total stranger is the quickest way to bond.
7. The Storyteller’s Kryptonite
New study reveals that ad hominem attacks are the kryptonite of human communications
8. Unbelief is the Friction that Keeps Persuasion in Check
Although naysayers can blow up an argument through simple character assassinations, chief negotiator Chris Voss offers an antidote.
9. Storytelling Starts with Verbs and Nouns
Ron finds storytelling advice from one of the oddest places, the design engineers on the Apollo space program.
10. Storytellers Train Elephants
Before you step into the three ring circus of storytelling, you might want to brush up on your elephant training skills.
11. Who Knew Storytelling Could Be so Dangerous
Ron goes back to his storytelling roots with the release of his latest podcast episode on Griddlecakes Radio.
12. Storytellers Question Their Beliefs
If you still believe something after five years, question it. You’ll either learn something new about it, or change the view entirely. Both are good for storytellers.
13. Storytelling at its Finest, Apollo 11: What We Saw
Sometimes the best way to learn storytelling is to study the works of others. Ron goes card-by-card through the StoryHow(TM) PitchDeck to see how Bill Whittle used Roles, Events, Influences, and Techniques in his storytelling masterpiece, Apollo 11: What We Saw.
14. When Storytellers Become Entrepreneurs: weshowup.io
Storytellers bring new perspectives to the great game of business. Kahlil Ashanti is changing the way tickets are priced with his company, weshowup.
15. Our Lives Are Measured by the Stories We Leave Behind
Life is a great story, with plots, subplots, twists and turns. The best ones set themselves deeply into our memories. What are your favorite ones?
16. Tradeoffs are the Spice of Life
While marketers want to tell ideal stories, more often than not, their customers choices are less than ideal.
17. Why AI Scientists Must Study Storytelling
While deep neural networks can perform amazing functions, artificial intelligence has a long way to go to match the robustness of human intelligence. Ron Ploof, suggests that the path to achieve such robustness is found through storytelling.
18. Everything I know about Storytelling I learned from Gilligan’s Island
How do you create a great story that connects across generations? By studying a successful one. Ron analyzes the television show, Gilligan’s Island, using the StoryHow™PitchDeck.
19. Golden Nuggets from UCI’s Center for Storytelling
UCI School of the Humanities introduced its Center for Storytelling through an inaugural event called, Telling Stories that Matter. Here are some notes from that event.
20. The Tyranny of “ish”
An insidious trend that creeps under the auspices of protection is threatening human communication. But what exactly is it protecting us from?
21. Fool Me Once: Learning to Play the Game
Have you ever been taken advantage of? Have you ever been cheated, lied to, or deceived? At some point in our lives, someone uses our trust against us and we’re disappointed, hurt, and left somewhat jaded. Ron returns to his audio storytelling roots tell the story of being scammed and the lessons that he’s learned through the experiences
22. Storytellers Cook. Writers Bake.
It’s common to think of storytelling and writing to be interchangeable. They’re not. Ron examines the fundamental differences between writers and storytellers.
Stories are driven by great characters with unique motivations–and get interesting when those motivations clash. We see this every day in business. Before a prospect issues a purchase order, a host of characters must reconcile their motivational differences. Just think about the myriad of things that must align between you, your boss, your prospect, your prospect’s boss, and a collection of others, including competitors, investors, and vendors before any transaction.
The best business people understand what storytellers have known for ages: the best way to predict behavior is to understand what people want. Therefore, when storytellers create characters, they ask a simple question: “What do they want and why do they want it? By understanding what and why, storytellers establish guidelines for how characters react within specific situations.
Consider two famous characters: Detective Columbo (TV series) and Inspector Clouseau (The Pink Panther movies). Both Columbo and Clouseau are police detectives who want to solve a mystery, but each is motivated differently. Columbo pretends to be a bumbling detective, while Inspector Clouseau is a bumbling detective. Columbo solves his cases by staying one step ahead of his adversaries, while Inspector Clouseau stumbles into the truth through the hijinks of his ineptitude. Two characters with the same goal yet different motivations results in vastly different results. It’s all about the motivations.
So, how do you create a great characters that connect with audiences across generations? By studying successful ones. So let’s analyze Gilligan’s Island using the StoryHow™PitchDeck (SHPD).
Gilligan’s Island was a low-budget, campy sitcom filmed in the mid 1960s. Although it only ran for three seasons, it’s still in syndication today–more than fifty years later. Why? Because of the special ingredients that its writers tossed into their storytelling cauldron.
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…
The song in the show’s opening title sequence describes four storytelling components: the Backstory (SHPD #30), Initial Impulse (SHPD #16), Setting (SHPD #6) and the castaways’ common motivation (SHPD #40 Throughline) to get back home.
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip,
That started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship.
The mate was a mighty sailing man, the skipper brave and sure,
Five passengers set sail that day, on a three-hour tour,
A three-hour tour.
The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed,
If not for the courage of the fearless crew the Minnow would be lost,
The Minnow would be lost.
The ship set ground on the shore of this uncharted desert isle,
With Gilligan, the Skipper too,
The millionaire and his wife,
The movie star, Professor and Mary Ann,
Here on Gilligan’s Isle.
Experienced storytellers know that good Minor Characters (SHPD #4) make better major characters.
The Island establishes the story’s Setting (SHPD #6), restricting the characters to one location. It’s the Catalyst (SHPD #9) that creates the Challenges (SHPD #53) of living in a benevolent prison–one that restricts castaway movements while simultaneously protecting them (SHPD #14) from the elements.
The Pacific Ocean is the castaway’s common foe and thus, Antagonist (SHPD #3). It’s the largest obstacle between them and their common goal: home.
The SS. Minnow is a Symbol (SHPD #57) of the castaway’s predicament. Just seeing it in the background reminds us that the castaways are trapped.
The Radio keeps the castaways connected to the outside by providing them with external Knowledge (SHPD #41).
The castaways use Coconuts for everything like: drinking cups, water-powered machines, the Professor’s experiments, and let’s not forget about Coconut Cream Pie.
The most important part of character development is determining what each character wants. This single piece of information drives all of their actions.
Jonas Grumby (The Skipper) wants to take care of the castaways. As their Captain, he’s driven by an Obligation (SHPD #34) to act as their Protector (SHPD #14). The Skipper’s Fatal Flaw (SHPD #11) is his inability to remain calm when Gilligan inevitably fouls something up. He is the Mirror (SHPD #7) to Gilligan.
Gilligan, the first mate, always wants to do the right thing, yet his good intentions frequently result in mayhem. His Superpower (SHPD #12) rests in his physical abilities to do things that the other castaways can’t, like run, jump, and climb coconut trees. Gilligan has two Fatal Flaws (11): he doesn’t think through his actions and Coconut Cream Pies are his kryptonite. Gilligan is the Mirror (SHPD #7) to the Skipper.
Thurston Howell III (Mr. Howell) wants to be the castaway’s leader because of his status on the mainland. He fails to understand that his money and status have no bearing on a deserted island. He’s a snob on the outside and a marshmallow on the inside. Even though his actions are Ironic (SHPD #56), he’s a respected elder and sometimes Mentor (SHPD #13).
Eunice “Lovey” Howell (Mrs.Howell) always wants to bring class to island activities. Her Fatal Flaw (SHPD # 11) is her inability to understand the actions of her working-class island mates. She is warmhearted and frequently comforts Mr. Howell when things inevitably don’t go his way.
Mary Ann Summers is a sweet, Kansas farm girl who wants to help everyone. Her most appealing attribute, her innocence, is also her Fatal Flaw (SHPD #11) because people can take advantage of her. She is the Mirror (SHPD #7) to Ginger.
Ginger Grant is an actress who wants to be the center of attention. Like the Howells, she’s used to getting her way. Ginger’s Superpower (SHPD # 12) is her ability to wrap the male Castaways around her little finger, while her Fatal Flaw (SHPD #11) is her inability to connect with people. Her Mirror (SHPD #7) is Mary Ann.
Roy Hinkley (The Professor) wants to solve all of the castaway’s problems. Whether it be finding a way off the island, making appliances out of bamboo, or recharging the radio’s batteries with coconut milk, the Professor is always trying to make life better for the castaways. His two Super Powers (SHPD #12) are Knowledge (SHPD #41) and Logical Choice (SHPD #33). His non-emotional way of attacking problems plays Mirror (SHPD #7) to the Skipper’s emotional reactions.
Since Gilligan’s Island is a serial sitcom, the castaways can never leave the island. Therefore, each episode consists of a series of Recurring Events (SHPD #18) in the castaway’s common goal to get off the island. A typical episode involves the writers pumping the castaways with hope, and just when it looks like they’ll be rescued, one of Gilligan’s well-meaning actions scuttles the plan with a Setback (SHPD #23).
Gilligan’s Island is one of the most popular television series in broadcast history. But why? Was it the production value? Nope. The first season was filmed in black & white. Did it have the best writing? Nope. You could drive a truck through some of the holes in its Plot Points (SHPD #19). So, if the show suffered from such basic flaws, how did it enjoy so much success?
I have a few thoughts. First, it contains the raw ingredients of a good story: an odd collection of strong characters restricted to interact a tiny social microcosm. Add the fact that these characters were so relatable, we willingly suspend our belief to look past some of the plot-line inconsistencies. Lastly, and I think this is the most important one, we know theses characters by a single name. Just hearing someone talk about the Skipper, Gilligan, Mr. and Mrs. Howell, Mary Ann, Ginger, or the Professor, brings fond memories and make us smile.
Do you want to write a great story? Then create characters with a diverse set of wants. Ask, “What do they want and why do they want it?” Finally, put those characters into a situation, step back, and watch what happens. It worked for Gilligan’s Island and it might just work for you.
Photo Credit: Deserted Island by Mrs eNil through an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license.
The great game of business is a story filled with roles, events, and influences. So, what happens when the entrepreneur in this great game is also a storyteller?
I first met Kahlil Ashanti in 2015 after watching his one man show, Basic Training. While I consider myself a pretty good storyteller, I’m self-aware of my limitations. Let’s just say that I could never pull-off what Kahlil does onstage.
We’ve interacted periodically via social media since then, but when a LinkedIn notification mentioned that he’d started a new company catering to storytellers, I had to reach out.
His company, weshowup, is a pay-what-you-want service. The website calls it: “A digital risk-reversal model for selling arts, culture, and entertainment.” Weshowup isn’t the first company to implement a risk-reversal model. Software has experimented with freemium and shareware models for years: Radiohead offered its In Rainbows album as pay-what-you-want in 2007; and companies like Kickstarter have offered ways to prepay for future products.
But, weshowup adds two new wrinkles to the pay-what-you-want model: it’s designed to price a service as opposed to a product and that value is assessed after delivery. This flies in the face of traditional services-pricing strategies. Known rather crudely as “the call girl effect,” traditional service pricing models are built on the premise: the value of a service diminishes after services are rendered.
“It’s about trust,” Ashanti said. Weshowup is based on acknowledging “…that the power is in the audience’s hands as opposed to the other way around.” He explained how in an age of digital distraction, artists and venues must recognize the authority of audiences with so much information at their fingertips. “We’ve all experienced paying for a performance, yet felt cheated with the traditional ticketing model.”
I understood what he was saying. The traditional model requires audience members to risk real dollars–frequently months before the performance with no tangible reason for why the price represents the value delivered. But, while I appreciated weshowup’s risk-reversal model as an audience member, the performer inside of me worried. What if the audience decides not to pay after my performance?
“Freeloaders don’t make the effort to come out,” he said, “and there will always be someone who tries to cheat every system. People who care show up. They feel loyalty to the performer, artist or speaker, who is taking a risk that audiences want to embrace.” He also pointed rather harshly to the other side. “This model is not for performers who want shortcuts. The audience will decide on whether the performer worked for it or phoned it in.”
Weshowup’s pricing model is about the relationship between artists and their audiences. “It’s not about feeling sorry for the artist; it’s about care and giving afterwards. It’s about loyalty.” And that loyalty goes much further than supporting a busker who passes a hat or displays an open guitar case.
Initial tests have yielded promising results. For example, in the first test, Kahlil requested an up-front, $5 reservation fee, leaving the final price to be determined after his performance. By the end of the night, the show averaged $53 per booking. The word spread quickly, and venues around the world, like Charlotte NC, NYC, Australia and the UK, supported the idea with both investments and trial opportunities.
Weshowup is rolling out its technology to venues first, with artists working through those venues. The venues pay customized annual license fees based on seating capacity.
Kahlil Ashanti is demonstrating the power of being both an entrepreneur and a storyteller. The storyteller in him demands empathy for his audiences. The entrepreneur in him offers the ability to see future potentials, such as opening access to those without the disposable income required by traditional ticket pricing.
“Anyone can show up and nobody knows how much you paid. Come as you are. Some can give more, some give less, and the person sitting next to you will never know. Either way, all are welcome and in this world of weaponized differences and divisiveness, a little inclusion can’t hurt.”
To learn more, check visit weshowup.