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.
“You know, Ron,” one of my friends said recently, “You breakdown story like an engineer.”
While I’d never really thought about it that way before, she’s right. Story is a massively complicated subject that I’ve approached by using the skills that I learned in engineering school.
I was a sophomore engineering student at Merrimack College when the professor stopped in the middle of his Digital Signal Processing lecture and dropped a non sequitur. “Why are you here?”
The students just stared at him.
“Why do you want to be an engineer?” Dr. Develis pressed. “Why did you choose a major with such rigor?”
We still had nuthin‘.
He smiled and decided then let us off the hook. “You’re here to learn just one thing.”
We laughed. Surely, he couldn’t be serious. We had to learn mathematics, physics, circuit theory, and control systems. We’d be taking classes in linear algebra, calculus, differential equations, and electromagnetics–not to mention the religion and philosophy courses required to graduate from an Augustinian school.
He dismissed our protests. “Your four years in Engineering school will teach you one thing: a method to solve problems. You’ll learn how to break big problems into small ones. Then, by solving the small problems, you’ll eventually solve the big ones.”
As we pondered that thought, he then made a disturbing prediction. “And you’ll get so good at it, that some people will hate you for it.”
Although I didn’t believe him at the time, life has proved his grim prophecy to be true. It tends to happen while working on big problems with someone who wants to solve them whole. Unfortunately, all-at-once strategies frequently become a jumbled mess of subjectivity, passion, and emotion–all great things when bringing energy to a problem–but terrible while trying to solve one.
My training forces me to look at problems objectively. First I seek to uncover the root causes to problems. Next I learn as much about them as I can. Finally, I break the big problem into smaller, more manageable ones. The process is ruthlessly sequential and simultaneously infuriating to someone who values action over achievement.
Problem-solving is in my DNA. My work is covered with its fingerprints. For example, The StoryHow™ PitchDeck breaks storytelling into four parts: roles, events, influences, and techniques. The Proverb Effect breaks proverbs down into their base components of function, frame, and finish.
Love me or hate me, I am what I am–a storyteller with a degree in Electrical Engineering.
Photo Credit: United States Office Of War Information, Feininger, Andreas, photographer. Science and research. Mineral prospecting. A ground comparator will reveal the presence of an ore body under the surface of the earth by measuring the total intensity and the plane of polarization of the secondary electro-magnetic field set up by the ore body. These students are using an adjustable coil of copper wire which acts as an electrical transformer, and may be tilted to determine the minimum and maximum intensity of the field. They are conducting an experiment in electronics, taught in the department of geophysics at a famous mining engineering school. They will apply the knowledge they are acquiring to airplane detection and anti-submarine warfare. Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado. Colorado Golden Golden. Jefferson County United States, 1942. Oct. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017696228/.
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/.