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/.

2018 StoryHow in Review

Our goal is to be your one-stop business storytelling resource and we do so by publishing strategies and tactics that help you become a better storyteller. We fulfilled our promise in 2018 through not only publishing the following 32 articles, but Ron also published a new book called The Proverb Effect: Secrets to create tiny phrases that change the world. We look forward to serving your storytelling needs in 2019.

StoryHow Blog Posts (2018)

1. The Evangeline Connection

Variety helps build storytelling stamina. Sometimes its helpful to reach beyond the business storytelling genre to broaden your skills. In this post, Ron practices what he preaches by telling a historical story with personal significance.

2. The Simple Reason Why Most Companies Tell The Wrong Story

Most companies tell the wrong story because they fail to understand the complicated role that their products and services play within an ecosystem of people with different motivations.

3. Use These Three Simple Words to Bond with Any Audience

Looking for an easy way to bond with an audience? Just preface your message with these three little words.

4. Why Marketers Must Always Consider the “Three Whats”

Marketers who want to incorporate storytelling into their messaging must first employ “the three whats.”

5. Three Steps to Telling a Single-sentence Story

Single-sentence stories use carefully chosen words to present facts that defy listener expectations. In this post, Ron describes one of the most emotionally powerful single-sentence stories he’s ever heard.

6. How to Choose Your Story’s Most Significant Details

Sometimes storytelling lessons come from the most unlikely places. This one comes from mathematics.

7. Assumptions Play Two Vital Roles in Storytelling

We all make assumptions. We can’t help it. Which is why they play such important roles in any story.

8. Simple Storytelling Lesson from a Rolling Stones Song

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards offer great advice for any storyteller…through a pop song.

9. How One Awesome Story Took 42 Years for Me to Tell

Sometimes the best stories take a while to tell. This one took me forty-two years.

10. The Four-letter Word that Drives all Stories

The backbone of any story is a simple four-letter word. And it’s not the one you’re thinking of.

11. It’s Hard to See the Story When You’re in it

It’s hard to see the story when you’re in the middle of it. Before we get too confident in our present-day beliefs, remember that we too are in the middle of our own incomplete stories and the only thing standing between us and their endings is time.

12. The Best Salespeople are Story Researchers

The best sales folks aren’t necessarily great storytellers. But they are great story researchers.

13. Quality is measured by the number of words you strike out NOT bang out

It’s not the amount of words you write. It’s about the amount of words you keep.

14. Thinking Is the Hardest Work

Storytellers need time to think, which doesn’t play well in a business culture that demands communications through bulleted presentation slides.

15. Journalists CAN’T be Storytellers

Journalists are beholden to facts. Storytellers are beholden to their audiences. And never the twain shall meet.

16. When Your Story is Stuck, Try a Test

Ron explains one of the techniques that he uses to get unstuck.

17. Great Questions Lead to Great Stories

Have you ever prefaced an answer with “That’s a great question?” In all likelihood, you were about to answer with a story.

18. Beware the Shaggy Dog Story

Have you ever heard a story that seemed so filled with promise yet it never delivered? If so, you’ve been the victim of a Shaggy Dog story.

19. Clickbait: The Evil Shaggy Dog Story

Ron demonstrates how clickbait headline writers use storytelling techniques against us

20. StoryTip: Characters Fall Into Patterns

People enter new situations with previous experiences. Some of those experiences dictate how we act. Great stories come from mismatches in those actions.

21. Don’t Dumb Down. Build Up

The human brain has a tremendous capacity to understand very complex concepts. You just gotta give it a little head start.

22. Story is the shell…not the nut

Some things in life give their lives for others. Stories are no exception.

23. Storytellers Allow Audiences to Infer

Bad storytellers describe meaning explicitly. Great storytellers allow their audiences to infer it themselves.

24. Wanna be a storyteller? Be careful what you ask for

Storytelling is a superpower. But it also comes with its own Kryptonite.

25. Storytellers Break the Rules

Advertising legend Stan Freberg shows us how the best storytellers break the rules.

26. Introducing The Proverb Effect

Ron introduces The Proverb Effect, the first book to define a repeatable process for conveying deep meaning through self-created proverbs.

27. Why this Storyteller Wrote a Book about Proverbs

Storyteller Ron Ploof wanted to know how proverbs have been used successfully to pass wisdom from one generation to another. Two years of research later and he’s figured out the rules for creating the ultimate long-story short.

28. Less Convincing, More Conveying

Deception experts say that liars convince, while truth-tellers convey. Which of the two terms best describes your marketing materials?

29. Storytellers Avoid Distractions

The worst thing that a storyteller can do is introduce a distraction to the audience.

30. Bookend Your Next Talk with Proverbs

Ron Ploof introduces the StoryHow™ PSP method of structuring your next talk.

31. Creating Proverbs: The Function

Proverb construction is a three step process. This post is about Step 1: determining a function.

32. Proverb Construction Step #2: The Frame

Proverb construction is a three step process. This post is about Step 2: determining a proverb’s frame.