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The storytelling imperative: Make them care!

Andrew-Stanton_tedPixar Studios filmmaker Andrew Stanton gave a good TED talk about a year ago where he states that one of the key aims of any good story is that it must make the audience care. "Make me care," he says. If you research the advice of famous directors and screenwriters of today and of years gone by you will find this is a common refrain: You have go to make the audience care. Presentations in all their many forms are never just about transferring information alone. We are emotional beings, like it or not, and to connect and engage people to the degree that they will care enough to listen to you, you have to evoke in them some kind of emotion. The TED talk below is well worth watching; the storytelling lessons in this short talk are many.

On the TED stage Stanton does a great job of getting the audience's attention and engages them immediately with a relevant short story in the form of a joke, a joke that gets a big laugh (strong emotional connection). Then he transitions quickly into the first part of his talk. "Storytelling -- (pauses as audience laughs again) -- is joke telling," Stanton says. " We all love stories. We're born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future, and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined."

Below I highlight some of the more salient points Stanton makes concerning story.

 • Make the audience care.

The greatest story commandment of all says Stanton is: "Make me care. Please—emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically — just make me care." But how to make the audience care? This is the most fundamental question of all. There is no single answer, but all the story tips Stanton touches on in his talk go some of the way toward answering this important question. Obviously one important aspect is having empathy for your audience and trying to craft your story and design your content always with the audience in mind.

• Make a promise from the beginning.
Very early on you need to get the audience to believe that this story is going to go somewhere, that this will be worth their time. "A well told promise," says Stanton, " is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot and propels you forward through the story to the end."

• Make 'em work for it.
You don't have to beat people over the head with your message, nor do you need to always make your message painfully obvious. This is not about being vague or unclear, but it is about letting the audience work on their own a little to figure things out. "... the audience actually wants to work for their meal," Stanton says. "They just don't want to know that they're doing that. That's your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you're making them work for their meal. We're born problem solvers. We're compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that's what we do in real life. It's this well-organized absence of information that draws us in." As Stanton says, don't give them 4, give them 2+2 and let them figure it out.

• Story is about change. No change, no story.
"We're all learning all the time. And that's why change is fundamental in story," says Stanton. "If things go static, stories die, because life is never static." Anytime we get on a stage to speak we are talking about change. I think of change in two ways. First, the content of every good presentation or story addresses a change or some kind. Second, an effective presentation or a story told well will create a change in the audience. Sometimes this can be a big change and sometimes it is quite small. Too often, though, the only change the presenter creates in the audience is the change from wakefulness to sleep.

Construct anticipation in your story.
In a great story (or presentation) the audience wants to know what happens next. And more than that, Stanton says, the audience will want to know how it all concludes. In an explanatory narrative a series of actions can establish a narrative flow, and even though this may lack the high degree of tension that you can get with a protagonist struggling with a complication, the sense of journey that is created is something close to anticipation of what comes next. Stanton quotes British playwright, William Archer: "Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty."

• Have a clear theme.
"A strong theme is always running through a well-told story," Stanton says. The theme is often not stated directly in the story but it is the essence or the core idea at the root of the story. Robert McKee refers to this core idea as the "Controlling Idea." If you have a clear sense of your theme or controlling idea, this keeps you from trying to throw too many ideas into one story. For example, McKee says in the book Story that the controlling idea of the movie Groundhog Day is "Happiness fills our lives when we learn to love unconditionally."

• Stimulate a sense of wonder
"The best stories infuse wonder," Stanton says. Everything depends on the context of the presentation, but in most cases a good presentation is a mix of logic, data, emotion, and inspiration. We are usually OK with the logic and data part, but fail on the emotional and inspirational end. Certainly leaders and educators need to infuse a bit of wonder into their talks that inspire people to make a change. A good presentation should not end when the speaker sits down or the class comes to an end.

• Look inside yourself
Where do you find material for storytelling? Draw from your experiences and look inside yourself. Stanton said that this was the first story lesson he ever learned. "Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn't always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core."



Robert McKee is another great story teller.


Some of the arguments I am using to convince my colleagues that storytelling is a powerful tool, even for management consulting, on http://b2bstorytelling.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/its-the-story-stupid/


Story is still underrated imho, in my new book all about slides I even mention story. You can get away with dull slides (if you have to!) but not without story! Good stuff Garr.


From "Writing for Emotional Impact" - Instead of 2+3=5 go with 2+x=5.

Use subtext and make the reader an active participant.

Great blog post. Thanks for sharing.

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