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       

The Storyteller’s Kryptonite

 

The creation of fire requires three ingredients: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Remove any component and fire cannot happen. Similarly, Aristotle taught us that persuasion also requires three ingredients: ethos (credibility), logos (facts), and pathos (emotion). Removing any one of these components inhibits one’s ability to persuade.

For the past four years, I’ve only focused on persuasion from a speaker’s perspective–teaching storytellers the importance of representing all three components in their work. However, I never considered persuasion from the firefighter’s perspective–the naysayer whose job is to remove the fuel, restrict the oxygen, or reduce the heat of ideas. That all changed when I read The Effect of ad Hominem Attacks on the Evaluation Claims Promoted by Scientists, a study that reveals a major flaw in the power of story. Evidently, no matter how hard a storyteller works to present facts, make them relevant emotionally, and to do so in an ethical manner, the fire of persuasion can be extinguished with a simple attack the storyteller’s character.

The study presented two groups (college students and adults) with scientific claims followed by one of three critiques:

  1. an empirical attack on the facts, data, method, etc.
  2. an ad hominem attack on the scientist (misconduct (present or past), conflict of interest, education, sloppy work)
  3. attack both the science and the scientist

The study predicted the following results (from most to least):

  1. attacking both the science and the scientist would have the most negative effect on persuasion
  2. attacking just the science would have the next most negative affect
  3. attacking the scientist would have the least affect.

The results didn’t support their prediction. Instead, it found that attacking the scientist had the same effect as attacking the science. In other words, readers could be swayed against the claim by either a) attacking the data, or b) attacking the character of the individual. And here’s the saddest part of the study. Not only did both attacks have the same effect individually, only one attack was required to erode confidence in the claim. A combination attack on the scientist and the science had negligible effect. Evidently, only one attack was enough to poison the well.

(Note. Misconduct and conflict of interest had the most negative effect, while attacking education and sloppy work had negligible effect)

As someone trained in the sciences (electrical engineering), I found the results disheartening. Pointing out empirical errors is the generally accepted way to vet scientific findings. But learning that a simple character assault is JUST AS EFFECTIVE as attacking the facts–that shook my confidence in human communications.

But, it shouldn’t have been that surprising.

While studying the brainwaves of people listening to stories, Kendall Haven found that the most effective way to change an audience’s perspective is through viewing the character’s actions through the lens of motive. A character with good intentions is loved by an audience while that same character performing the exact same actions with bad intentions is despised.

One doesn’t have to look beyond today’s headlines, tweets, and masked protesters to see how those on both the political left and right choose to denigrate their counterparts by attacking their character as opposed to their ideas. Since it’s just as effective to lob inflammatory terms (bigot, fascist, homophobe, Hitler, Mao, marxist, misogynist, racist, Stalin, transphobe, socialist, supremacist, uneducated, unpatriotic, and xenophobe) as opposed to a carefully thought-out critique, there’s no need to prepare counter arguments. All one has to do is poison the conversational well by implementing a personal attack on the opposition’s motivations to exploit an unfortunate flaw within in the human mind.

Although I’m discouraged by daily evidence of this phenomenon in news headlines and social media posts, I find myself cautiously optimistic. Storytellers make the best communicators and thus we need to consistently exercise our craft. We must rely on the time-tested successes of ethos, logos, and pathos to convey our messages. Then we must sit back and and hope that this crazy part of human history fades back into the dark recesses from which it emerged.