One of the reasons why marketers make terrible storytellers is because they’re compelled to tell us EVERYTHING about their product or service. Longtime StoryHow readers, however, understand that’s not how stories work. The best way to hold people’s attention is to give them less information, not more.
The best storytellers assign their audiences some work. Rather than spoon-feeding every detail, they dole out information drip-by-drip, making audiences feel off balance while they try to stitch those bits into some coherent meaning. And there’s one more thing that the great storytellers understand. People tend to connect partial dots negatively. Why? Because worst case scenarios make the best stories.
My Nissan Maxima is easy to identify by its personalized license plate. One day, my friend Terrence saw my car and noticed a young woman in the passenger seat. He didn’t think too much about it until he pulled up behind me at a set of lights.
The personalized plate confirmed that it was indeed my car, which made the subsequent events appalling. Evidently, my arm was draped across the back of the passenger seat. He then saw my hand stroking the young woman’s hair. Right before the light changed, he saw me lean over and kiss her.
Terrence’s blood boiled with rage. “What a jerk,” he thought. “How could Ron cheat on his beautiful wife?” He wondered what to do next. Should he confront me? Should he tell my wife? While he contemplated his response to my ethical lapse, the light turned green and the Maxima initiated its turn. That’s when Terrence got a better look at the driver and realized that my son had borrowed the Maxima–to pick up his girlfriend!
Terrence had partial information. When he saw my car, he assumed that I was driving it. And when he combined that partial information with the driver’s amorous actions, he filled those gaps with a worst case scenario. It’s just human nature.
Great storytellers setup their audiences. They reveal just enough information to let the audience’s imaginations run wild, then drop one last contextual piece that turns every worst case assumption upside down.
Don’t pile information upon your listeners. Present just enough detail to lead them down predictably wrong paths and drop the hammer.
Photo Credit: Harris & Ewing, photographer. Annapolis Maryland, 1934. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/hec2013007668/.