Wouter Corduwener is a polyglot who masters languages faster than deltiologists collect postcards. So, what does this polyglot have to do with storytelling? Human behavior.
In How to Tell a Story in a Half-Second, I detailed the system of involuntary reactions associated with the startle response–the auto-defense system that’s built into everyone, independent of race, gender, country of origin, or creed. When we see something new or that we don’t understand, we’re all compelled to focus on it and pull away until we do.
But, do the opposite of instincts exist? For example, is there a natural reaction that causes us to drop our guard?
That’s where Wouter Corduwener comes in. The Dutchman produces a YouTube channel where he records his multilingual interactions with tourists. Each video starts similarly: he initiates conversations in English or Dutch. At this point, most people are being friendly, polite, and slightly guarded. Yet, once he switches the conversation to their native tongue, they melt. The reaction–just like the startle response–is universal. Check out the following video to see what I mean.
I love how the mood changes from guarded/polite to familiar-friendly at the sound of their mother tongue. Wouter changes their demeanor by connecting with something central to their core being.
The lesson for storytellers is clear. Use anomalies to draw attention and commonalities to bond. The best way to bond with a reader, listener, or audience member is to find something that you have in common, like the same language, hometown, friends, adversaries, or common experiences. And if you really want to bond, find something personal.
The more personal the commonality, the deeper the bond.
Photo Credit: Parks, Gordon, photographer. Haverstraw, New York. Interracial activities at Camp Christmas Seals, where children are aided by the Methodist Camp Service. Camp buddies. Haverstraw Haverstraw. New York Rockland County United States, 1943. Aug.?. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017861195/.
It’s called the startle response–an involuntary reaction initiated within our bodies when we encounter an anomalous event. While it’s common to discuss this phenomenon in the context of the fight-or-flight response, limiting the discussion trivializes the complexity of the underlying biological and neurological processes involved. A closer look reveals the fundamental reason why storytelling plays such an influential role in our lives.
We’ve all experienced the startle response. Perhaps you walked into a darkened room and saw unexpected movement. Instantly, you pulled back, possibly shrieked, before finally recognizing that the movement was tied to a familiar, harmless face. The most amazing thing about this universally human experience is that it only takes about a half-second to occur and I propose that it forms the building blocks for all understanding.
Let’s take a closer look at the startle response. The moment we perceive an anomalous life event, processes deep within the oldest parts of our brains signal the release of a hormone cocktail that increases blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar. Simultaneously, a twitch signal travels away from that primitive place in the brain.
Within 20 to 40 milliseconds (one-thousandths of a second) of the initial perception, that signal commands our eyes turn toward the potential threat to gather as much information about it as possible. Between 60 and 120 milliseconds later, our neck muscles turn our heads in the same direction. As the signal proceeds downward through our spinal cords, our shoulders tense (100 to 121 milliseconds) and our arms pull away from the threat and toward the most vulnerable parts of our bodies (125 to 195 milliseconds). Finally, between 145 and 395 milliseconds from the initial perception, that signal hits our legs which propels our bodies away from the perceived threat.
Why do I keep calling this anomaly a perceived threat? Because, our cognitive processes require more time than the 400 milliseconds (0.4 seconds) it took our instinct to distance ourselves from the perceived threat and put us into a defensive position. And therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that the role of instinct is to buy time for our slower cognitive processes to catch up.
Both processes, instinctive and cognitive were signaled simultaneously and proceeded in parallel. While the twitch signal traveled down and away from the primitive part of the brain, it also hit both sides of the frontal cortex–the nonverbal/emotional right hemisphere and verbal/logical left hemisphere. The faster right hemisphere preprocessed the information gathered from the eye/head orientation by presenting a series of uncategorized images to the left hemisphere. Think of the right hemisphere as generating a nonverbal series of hypotheses for the left hemisphere to derive conclusions. Since these nonverbal hypotheses have yet to be categorized, it’s common to experience emotions such as fear. Finally, the left hemisphere completes its (verbal/logical) assessment and ultimately concludes about nature and severity of the threat.
The entire process, from perception to conclusion, takes about a half-second (500 milliseconds)– for all humans, independent upon gender, race, culture, and ideology.
One of my favorite examples of the startle response comes from something called the Bushman Prank, where YouTube personality, Nickxar, blends into the background by wearing an ivy suit and steps toward unsuspecting people. This harmless prank offers a petri dish for us to study the startle effect.
So, let’s take a step-by-step look at a couple reacting to the Bushman Prank.
t = 0.033 seconds before the event, both are walking hand-in-hand relaxed.
t = 0.00 The startle response appears to have been signaled as both start glancing to their left
t = 0 .033 seconds: Both heads appear to be turning toward the “threat”
t = 0.100 seconds: The woman begins to pull away quickly, as the combination of her head turning toward the “threat” and her body moving away from it cause her hair to swing. The man’s head continues to turn toward the threat, yet has yet to show any indication of retreat.
t = 0.133 seconds: The woman’s right arm start to draw inward and we see the man’s first sign of retreat as his left arm draws inward and his right shoe lands with its toe pointed away from the threat.
t = 0.167 seconds: The woman is clearly leaning to the left and we see concern on her face. The man’s left arm continues to pull inward.
t = 0.200 seconds: The woman’s right arm is almost completely pulled in and her face shows fright. The man has shifted his weight to his right foot to change his forward momentum away from the perceived threat.
t = 0.233 seconds: The woman is pulling away quickly. The man’s face starts to show concern.
t = 0.267 seconds: Both are now in a full motion of pulling away. The woman’s hand is almost to her face and the man’s arm is still approaching his body.
t = 0.333 seconds: The woman shrieks for 0.25 seconds. The man’s face shows some concern.
t = 0.367 seconds: The woman covers her mouth and the man’s left arm is almost pulled to his body.
t = 0.433 seconds: While her hair and right hand obstruct our ability to observe the woman’s face, we see the man’s expression change from concern to the beginning of a smile.
t = 0.500 seconds: Although we still can’t see her face, her body appears to relax, thus offering us an indicator that she has identified the threat. The man’s smile grows as his body appears to relax also.
t = 0.567 seconds: We still can’t see her face because her hand is over her mouth, but her eyes appear to show some sort of recognition. The man’s smile grows.
t = 0.633 seconds: With the situation understood, they both laugh.
t = 1.067 seconds: All in good fun.
Humans are a messy bundle of instinct, emotion, and logic that help us navigate through a dangerous world. Our best stories are rooted in those universally common moments where each of us were forced to choose between fight, flight, or in the case of the Bushman Prank, delight.
The startle response phenomenon is the atomic building block of all shared human experience. Studying it will lead to the heart of human perception, decisions, and actions–all of which form the elements of a great story.
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:
I have a United States patent
I’ve had a bullet hit inches from my head
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/.
I’ve been reading about “deep learning,” the subset of artificial intelligence and machine learning that uses neural networks. The more I learn, the more I see a direct relationship between deep learning and storytelling.
Deep learning is split into two steps: training and inference. Have you ever wondered how Facebook knows that you’re in an untagged picture? Essentially, it has trained a neural network model to do so by showing it hundreds of pictures already tagged with your name. Over time, the model starts to “recognize” patterns in this training set. Finally, once the model has been trained to recognize you, Facebook shows it untagged pictures. If the model has been trained well enough, it can infer whether you’re in that untagged picture or not.
I’ve found that this learn-and-infer process also has deep roots in good storytelling.
The best storytellers base their work in inference. They’re masters at delivering just enough facts for us to infer the meaning of them.
For example, storytellers will show us:
darkness and make a noise come from it
a young couple in one car while the driver of an oncoming car is texting
someone about to deliver ice cream and balloons to a sad friend
Storytellers show us these things because of our innate abilities to infer meaning from them.
Darkness is a metaphor for the unknown. A sound that comes it is always viewed as a threat
Texting and driving is dangerous, and so we fear for the safety of the young couple
It’s hard to be sad around ice cream and balloons
Great storytellers say more with less by allowing us to infer from what we already know. Bad storytellers spend too much time teaching us new things.
In other words, bad storytellers describe meaning explicitly. Great storytellers allow their audiences to infer it themselves.
Image Credit: Sperry, R. T., Artist. Homeless and friendless / R.T. Sperry. New York, 1891. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2012647169/.
There’s no shortcut to becoming a better storyteller. The only way to build your storytelling muscles is to tell stories. And much like the physical benefits of cross-training, your storytelling abilities expand by varying the types of stories you tell. So, mix it up a little. Reach beyond business stories into other genres such as historical, personal, and fictional ones.
For the past twelve years, I’ve been producing a storytelling podcast called, Griddlecakes Radio: Exploring the Lost Art of Audio Storytelling. During the holiday break, I wrote, recorded, and published a historical story called, The Evangeline Connection. You can listen to the complete Griddlesode by hitting the play button below.
But I also wanted to share the story’s script because writing for the spoken word is different than writing for content to be read. It’s conversational, sometimes personal, and thus requires a more casual approach to structure, grammar, and word-choice.
We’ll get back to business storytelling next week, but for now, take a listen to my recent cross-training exercise in a story I call, The Evangeline Connection.
Script: The Evangeline Connection
On April 5, 1840, with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow–yes, that Henry Longfellow–entertaining two dinner guests. The first, Reverend Horace Connolly, you’ve probably never heard of. The second, you probably have. Nathaniel Hawthorne–yes, that Nathanial Hawthorne–had brought Connolly to meet Longfellow for one specific reason, to repeat a story. A tragic story. A true, almost forgotten story that happened over 85 years prior.
Hawthorne wasn’t interested in writing anything about the story, but he thought that Longfellow might. He guessed correctly because Wadsworth would publish an epic poem based on it called Evangeline. Sales of Evangeline were so brisk, that Longfellow became the most famous writer in America.
Evangeline is based on an event that happened over 260 years ago—a tiny blip in history that many people don’t know about. But the story that Horace Connolly told Longfellow has significance for this audience because without it, Griddlecakes Radio might not exist. Why you ask? Well, sit back and listen to a story that I call, the Evangeline Connection.
Fifteen years before the Mayflower hit Plymouth Massachusetts, in 1605, France tried to build a settlement of pioneers in present day Nova Scotia. While the first few waves of these immigrants to New France didn’t pan out, a small group had finally established themselves by 1640.
They called their land L’Acadie. And while the true origin of the name is forever lost to history, two plausible theories exist. The name may have been derived from the Arcadia district in Greece, named for a place of idyllic refuge. It also is very similar to the indigenous Mi’kmaq Indian’s suffix -akadie, which means “a place of abundance.”
Abundance was an important concept to the inhabitants of L’Acadie. Unlike their British counterparts, who saw territory as a scarce resource that needed to be taken by force, these Acadians viewed land as an infinite resource that neither needed to be taken nor shared. And so, while the British killed the Algonquin, Cree, Wabanaki, Maliseet, Menominee and Mi’kmaq for their land, the Acadians created their own land by reclaiming it from the ocean.
They did so through building a series of dykes that pushed the Atlantic back from nutrient-rich marshlands. These dykes were more sophisticated than piles of mud and sticks. They contained a clever technology–a sluice that ran through dyke called an aboiteau—a device that let fresh water out and blocked seawater from flowing in by an automated damper that opened and closed with the tides. When the tide was out, excess fresh water could drain from the farmland. When the tide came in, the damper slammed shut to keep the inward rushing salt water from ruining the crops.
And so, while the British empire and it’s New England colonies killed North America’s indigenous people for their land, the Acadians not only traded with them, but they befriended and sometimes married them. The Acadians had a special relationship with the Mi’kmaq which flourished for over one hundred years as Acadians adopted Mi’kmaq traditions, some Mi’kmaqs converted to Roman Catholicism, but most importantly, their blended families ensured the peace.
But peace is a fragile condition. If left to the locals, it’s sustainable. But when the locals are simply pawns in a chess game played by two world superpowers, peace becomes a little more complicated. While generations of Mi’kmaq and Acadians lived peacefully, six colonial wars were fought over their land. One day, L’Acadie belonged to the King of France. The next day, the King of England. For a century, the Acadians were innocent people caught in the middle of a brutal tug of war between monarchies.
The occupiers all looked the same to the Acadians. Although they spoke French and shared religious beliefs, they felt no allegiance to France. For that matter, they felt no allegiance to England either. And so the Acadians adopted a more laissez-faire approach to the colonies.
The British were more adamant about allegiance than the French. Perhaps, since the Acadians spoke and worshipped in Catholic churches, France assumed Acadian allegiance. But the British demanded an oath. And so the Acadians obliged by swearing allegiance to the king, but would never take up arms against France or England.
The British thought the idea preposterous. Obviously, the Acadians didn’t understand oaths. “You can’t pick and choose parts of an oath. You’re either all in or all out.” The Acadians were subjects of the King of England, and as such, he’d protect them. He’d even let them practice their godless, idol-worshipping religion. The least they could do was swear an oath to him.
But the Acadians didn’t see it that way. Just as they never saw land as a fixed entity to kill over, they were pragmatic about their pawn-like status. They were neither French nor British. They were Acadian and happy to obey the laws and pay taxes to whatever King won the most recent chess game. But they’d never bear arms against either side. Doing so would not only endanger their relationship with the Mi’kmaq, but would prove dangerous the next time the superpowers changed flags on the local fort.
The Neutrals, as the British called them, never relented. They never agreed to an unconditional oath, and that act of defiance drove the British crazy. But what could they do? By the 1750s, the Acadian population had grown to possibly 20,000. Their farms played a major economic role. The British needed the Acadians more than the Acadians needed them, which resulted in an awkward standoff.
Tensions grew until 1755 when Great Britain figured a zero-sum way to deal with the ingrates. They’d remove them by force. In this first documented case of ethnic cleansing in North America, the British rounded up between ten and fifteen thousand Acadians. Rather than just killing them, which would be evil, they chose a more humane way to deal with the Acadians. By cramming them aboard ships for the colonies, France, and England.
The word deportation sounds nice. It was anything but. The British ordered Acadians to show up at their local churches and meeting places where they were informed of their fate. They’d never see their homes again.
For many, that was also the last time they saw their families. While modest attempts were made to keep families together, it was more important to rid the area of the ingrate French Catholics. Husbands were separated from wives and mothers from their children. Longfellow’s Evangeline told the fictional story of two lovers, Evangeline and Gabriel, whose upcoming wedding was interrupted by the deportation. The story follows Evangeline’s lifelong quest to reunite with Gabriel.
The deportation took its toll. The holds of too few ships were packed with too many exiles such that there wasn’t enough room to stand let alone lie down. It’s estimated that as many as one-third of the exiled passengers never made it to their destination because of the brutal conditions.
But surviving the voyage marked only the beginning of their ordeal. Local authorities in colonial harbors such as Boston, New York, Annapolis, Charleston and Savannah were caught unprepared for ships brimming with homeless people. “Who would pay for this burden?”
Each city was left to decide how to manage the influx. Boston, for example, put 1000 Acadians into camps while figuring out what to do with them. They eventually decided to spread the burden by allocating Acadians throughout Massachusetts, leaving the municipalities to decide their fate.
You can imagine that the Acadians weren’t received well in these towns either. They were dirty, poor, non-English speaking, idol worshipping, Pope-following, Catholics that placed an unnecessary strain on the local economy. Although able-bodied and willing to work, the Acadians weren’t trusted. To the locals, they were French, the enemy in the ongoing French and Indian War. If allowed to congregate, surely, they’d plot against the King from within.
Over the years the Acadians adjusted to their new situation. Some spent a lifetime searching for their families. Others trekked hundreds of miles to return to the Canadian Maritimes. But over the last two-hundred and sixty odd years, the majority have assimilated into their new American home, while simultaneously losing their Acadian identities along the way.
Well, except for one community. Some exiled Acadians found their way to the French colony of Louisiana. Have you ever heard the word Cajun? Well, Cajun is another term for Acadian, a reference to the ancestors of L’Acadie.
Last summer, I took the Ancestry DNA test. The results came back with something unexpected. It said that I was Acadian. “Acadian? What the heck is an Acadian?” And so I started digging into the story. And while I learned Acadian History, I put two pieces of a family puzzle together.
You see, my grandmother was a French Speaking Catholic from Prince Edward Island. My grandfather was an English-speaking Protestant from Halifax Nova Scotia. My grandmother had a very French maiden name. My grandfather had a very German sounding surname. I’d always wondered how my German Protestant ancestors ended up in Nova Scotia. The story of L’Acadie answered the question for me.
Remember the economic problem that the British had? The Acadian farms were so vital to the economy, that the British needed those farms to be tended. And so, after they deported the Acadians, they sought hearty protestants who were accustomed to cold weather to take over the farms. And so they imported Germans.
That’s when it hit me. Was it possible that my grandfather’s ancestors were imported to replace my grandmother’s ancestors after their deportation? Could that be why I have a French Catholic grandmother and a German-protestant grandfather? If so, my very existence is the result of a tragedy. Had it not been for this ethnic cleansing, that my grandfather’s family never comes to Nova Scotia, my grandfather never meets my grandmother, and I’m not born to produce this very podcast.
I’ve yet to find proof to this theory, but it gives me much to think about. Terrible things happen in this world. We have no control over them. But is it possible, that somehow buried deep in those moments, there’s grace? There’s hope. That the human spirit is alive and well, and although it’s frequently battered and bruised, it perseveres nonetheless. That we as humans can learn from our past and hopefully not repeat it our future?
I’m glad to have learned about my Acadian roots. It’s given me insight into the way that I am. You see, I believe that the world has an abundance of natural resources, because the technology of the day defines what a resource is. Properly located dykes installed with aboiteau can make farmlands out of marshlands. And just as the Acadians professed qualified oaths, my natural inclination is to also look beyond just two options to find the third alternative. Before my Acadian research, I attributed such thoughts to the nurture of my upbringing and studies. But now I wonder. Perhaps those thought patterns come from nature, as they were already programmed into my Acadian DNA.
I am of Acadian decent. And for some reason, right now, I’m craving Seafood Gumbo.