Meaning is Negotiation

 

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/.

2019 StoryHow In Review

 

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.

Everything I Know about Storytelling I Learned from Watching Gilligan’s Island

 

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

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.

Minor Characters

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.

Major Characters

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.

Episodes

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). 

Final Thoughts

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.

When Storytellers Become Entrepreneurs: weshowup.io

 

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.

Storytelling at its Finest, Apollo 11: What We Saw

 

Last week, I found an example of storytelling at its finest. Apollo 11: What We Saw, is the story of the space race, told from the viewpoint of a 10-year-old Bill Whittle, yet narrated by his 60-year-old self.

I caught myself grinning from ear-to-ear with each episode of this four-part miniseries, because I feel part of it. I was six years old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, almost seven for Apollo 13, and about seven-and-a-half on the final flight of Apollo 17. Both Bill and I had G.I. Joe Mercury Capsules, astronomy telescopes, and we experimented with model rocketry. I chose a career in engineering because of the space program.

Apollo 11: What We Saw comes in two flavors: YouTube video or audio-only. Subscribe to the audio version. Period. While its interesting to see 50-year-old grainy visuals interspersed with Bill talking into a studio mic, they detract from Bill’s ability to play in the theater of your vivid mind.

One of the best ways to learn storytelling is to study the works of others. So, when I find something that works, I like to go card-by-card through the StoryHow(TM) PitchDeck to see the storyteller used Roles, Events, Influences, and Techniques.

Take a look at my analysis, listen to the podcast, and then create your own. How do our lists compare?

A StoryHow analysis of Apollo 11: What We Saw

ROLES:
1. Audience: People interested in the space program and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11
2. Protagonist: USA
3. Antagonist: USSR
4. Minor Characters: Hundreds of thousands of people, from the President to the custodians who all played a part in this technological achievement
5. Time: Time is a minor antagonist character as the USA races against it
6. Setting: 1960s Cold War America…and the moon
7. Mirrors: Astronauts and Cosmonauts
8. Deceiver: Mostly politics between the USSR and USA. The USSR is trying to win the culture war by continuously winning firsts and the Americans downplaying the significance
9. Catalyst: The Cold War
10. Pawn: Astronauts, who were the fearless warriors at the tip of the proverbial spear,
11. Fatal Flaw: The pressure to sacrifice safety to be first
12. Superpower: The astronaut’s ability to stay calm during catastrophes that not only saved their lives, but saved the entire program
13. Mentor: Wernher von Braun
14. Protector: The astronauts on the ground, who represented their brothers in space
15. Sacred Cow: Busting the notion that we can’t break the bounds of earth and visit our closest planetary neighbor

EVENTS:
16. Initial Impulse: Sputnik
17. Ending: The first landing on the moon
18. Recurring Event: The USSR beating us to firsts (satellite, man in space, spacewalk, etc…)
19. Plot Points: All of the missions that lead up to Apollo eleven: Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. That knowledge leads us from beginning to ending
20. External Conflict: The Cold War
21. Internal Conflict: Strong-willed characters
22. Meet Cute: ?
23. Setback: Many setbacks, from exploding rockets to the loss of astronauts
24. Loss: Death of the astronauts
25. Zugzwang: Tough decision to Go or No-go based on ambiguous information
26. Indecision: Moments of terror when you just don’t know what to do
27. The Twist: The Americans leapfrogged the Russians
28. Mismatched Response: ?
29. Bad Advice: Pressurized oxygen environment with no easy way to escape in case of fire
30. Backstory: The entire history that led to the final moon landing

INFLUENCES
31. Jeopardy: Life and death
32. Emotional Choice: Fear and sacrifice
33. Logical Choice: Determination to go to the moon
34. Obligation Choice: Obligation to country
35. Gut Choice: Astronauts taking manual control of automated procedures at the last moments to save their lives
36. Instinctive Response: Relying on experience in tense moments
37. Moral Choice: Trade offs on information to share
38. Faith Choice: Many decisions were made to take a leap
39. Guilt Choice: ?
40. Throughline: Beat the Russians
41. Knowledge: Years of experiments culminating in the achievement
42. Who knows what?: What the public knew vs. what the government knew
43. Mistaken Identity: ?
44. No Need: Stripping human needs down to basic necessities for space
45. Context: Each event had a backstory that put it’s importance into perspective

TECHNIQUES:
46. Purpose: To put the space race into the context of what it meant to the average people who lived through it
47. Meaning: We can accomplish what we set our minds to do
48. Big Idea: Together, we achieve great things.
49. Fiction or Nonfiction?: Nonfiction story through personal experience
50. Scenes: Too many to mention. The moon, back home, public, private, etc…
51. POV: An older man telling a story through his eyes as a young man
52. The Hook: We achieved something spectacular, but you’ll never believe how we got there
53. Challenge: Putting men on the moon and getting them back alive
54. Timing/Order: Bill uses a non-linear time sequence to tell the story. He starts almost at the end as the Eagle is touching down, then pops back and forth to setup particular sub-stories that play out on the lunar surface.
55. Shared Experiences: What we as the public saw and how we all reacted.
56. Irony: Gus Grissom almost died because explosive bolts detonated prematurely. He then died as the result of not having explosive bolts.
57. Symbolism: Socialism vs. Capitalism
58. Foreshadowing: Gus Grissom’s bad luck
59. Analogy: Gravity on the moon vs. gravity on earth
60. Contrast: USSR vs. USA

 

 

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/.