March 21, 2011

A long, long time ago in a faraway land...

As opposed to giving background prior to sharing a story, jump right in and set the scene. When your listener hears a list of facts, or a description of relationships, or a reason why you are in this place at this time, he or she tries to hold onto all that information, and gets caught up in trying to remember it, wondering in what context they will have to apply the information, and how he or she might have to string all the facts together.

Being confronted with a long list of facts, especially without any context, can be anxiety-producing. Peter Gruber, author of the newly published book,
Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story, says, "Facts give you perspiration, stories give you inspiration."

When you start your story by setting the scene, the listener is immediately transported into the story. There's a reason why stories start, "A long long time ago in a faraway land..." When we hear that, we're there. As listeners, we think, "Great, I'm going to hear a story, and I can relax now, because all the information inherent in the story will be presented in a context I can easily understand. It's a story; all I have to do is listen."

As Brian Boyd writes in On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, a story "simplifies the cognitive task of comprehension....It does so efficiently because it acts as a superstimulus by focusing on intense experience and concentrated change. These not only hook attention but rouse emotion, which in turn amplifies memory."

A client with whom I am now working on developing a strategic story, to be used with a potential donor, began to share her story by stepping backward, and throwing lots of content at me: this is what I do; let me introduce the character and tell you why I was speaking with her; let me tell you how this person and place relates to all the other people and places with whom and where I work. In other words, she was in effect saying, "You have to know all of these things before I can share, and you can possibly appreciate, my story."

No. You have a story to share, and I want to hear it. Engage me. You have strategically chosen this story, so I will relate to the characters and the content. You are not asking me to completely redirect my thinking. Do not insult me, or underestimate yourself, by thinking a lot of background is necessary for my understanding. Help me to reduce what Boyd calls my "comprehension costs" and whet my curiosity.

I asked my client to imagine, instead, starting with, "In early of January of this year, I met with Connie Hernandez at Dynasty, the beauty salon she runs in the Clearview strip mall. Connie is a small, vivacious, woman, who has been struggling to keep this salon open... "

Reader, did you just picture Connie? The salon? The strip mall?

1 comment:

  1. Great points, Thaler. I often find myself giving backstory before getting to the point--a bad habit I have to curb. You're so right that when we just tell the story, people listen and feel involved. It always proves to be more effective that way.



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