Studying words from other languages is useful because they often capture a meaning that may not translate directly into one’s native tongue. Today’s example comes from the Greek word telos, which loosely translates to goal or end, but more accurately embodies the concept of the ultimate goal or the ultimate end.
According to Aristotle, telos resides in everything animal, vegetable, or mineral, and somehow, each one works in concert. While a rabbit’s telos may be to survive, it can only do so through a complementary collection of internal telos, like remaining safe, finding food, and reproducing. And although the telos of vegetables and minerals may not involve bunny-consciousness, they each play a role in feeding the rabbit’s hunger and forming a cave for the rabbit’s family to live in.
Let’s take a look at the role of telos in communicating. You’ve been tasked with presenting the results of your most recent project. So, what’s your telos? By the time you thank your audience for their time, what do you want them to walk away with? Is it to look at an issue from another perspective, change the way they’re doing things, or encourage them to double down on a controversial action because it’s the right thing to do?
Unfortunately, most people skip the telos step, preferring to jump right into the recitation of fact after tactical fact. Sadly, the telos of most presentations is to “get it out of the way” instead of conveying a subject’s deeper meaning.
For example, I recently found myself in the audience of a dreadful business presentation. When the presenter noticed that he’d completed his talk fifteen minutes ahead of his one-hour time slot, he said, “Wow! I thought I had too many slides!” Obviously his telos wasn’t to communicate, but to create enough slides to fill the time allotted.
To be fair, telos-driven talks require work that most people don’t think that they have the time to invest. But in reality, every presentation is a pay-telos-now-or-pay-telos-later situation. The less telos pre-work presenters put into their presentations, the more audiences must asses their own telos by asking internal questions such as:
- How does this information apply to me?
- Why am I sitting here?
- When is catering restocking that refreshments table?
Storytelling telos plays a fundamental role in my various interactions with people:
- The telos of my lectures is to teach a certain message.
- The telos of my opening stories is to bond with my audience.
- The telos of a story told over a pint of beer is usually to entertain.
- The telos of a Griddlecakes Radio story is to convey a life-lesson that a specific experience taught me.
Before you present, ask yourself, What’s my telos? Is it to add moisture to a dry subject, such as was my telos for writing The Proverb Effect? Is it to add personality to data, change a perspective, or to bond over a common experience?
Whichever way you choose, telos-driven communications strategies also contain a built-in quality control mechanism. When used, you’ll always be able to look back on a presentation and determine whether you were successful or not.
Image Credit: Metallic End Suspenders. , ca. 1874. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2001701469/.
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/.