How a Comedian and a Psychologist Helped Tweaked My Storytelling

This weekend, I gave a test speech for a speech evaluation workshop. I highly recommend that people attend any speech evaluation workshop, because improving your evaluation skills, will lead to thinking more critically about your own speeches. Anyway, I was thinking about what topic to pick and how to structure my speech.

In the past I simply did it this way:

Introduction-> Story A -> Point-> Story B-> Point -> Conclusion

I took the lesson learned in Story A and applied it to Story B.  It is very straight forward simple pattern. In fact, too simple and too straight forward that I was bored by it and wanted to do something different. It was also not a pattern I could use as people had much higher expectations as to what I could do.

I was looking for some kind of inspiration.  It needed to seem to be simple and elegant, but actually deep and well thought out. I had already written another speech, rejected it, written another one and rejected that one as well. This meant that I only had one week left. I was in a bind.

I was listening to a podcast on called Speaker Lab by Grant Baldwin . He introduced Ken Davis. Granted, I am not religious like Ken, but I enjoy the way he structures his stories.  He tends to structure them like this:

Introduction -> Beginning of Story A -> Beginning of Story B -> Story C - > End of Story B -> End of Story A -> Conclusion

I do not think he does this because he has ADD (attention deficiency disorder) or gets side tracked easily. He is a very successful comedian in his niche.  So, I wondered why he did it. I thought back to his structure and was reminded by what I read in another book on presentations.

That book is called “Presenting Magically.” It is by Tad James and David Shepherd, the authors, both experts in Neuro-Linguistic Programing (NLP). They mention in very back of the book that it is good to create open loops.  The reason for doing this is that people want completion.  By not completing the story you “create states of anticipation, attention, curiosity, and want to know more - which are useful states to elicit for your presentations.”  

In fact the tendency for people to pay more attention to open loops or unfinished tasks is called the Zeigarnik Effect after U.S. psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik.  Her study was conducted in 1927, despite what Wikipedia may say, the research has been confirmed according to a more credible resource such as Psychologist World magazine by researchers in 1953(John Atkinson) and in 1963(John Baddeley). So, this effect has been known for a long time. It is something that advertisers, comedians, and of course motivational speakers use.

BTW, the way if you are suffering from a lot of stress from all the things on your ToDo list, it is because of this effect. Your brain does it best to remind you of all the things that you are supposed to do that you have started in your mind. This takes energy. And  all the reminding and arguing inside your head creates further stress. That stress goes away when you complete an action.  How to deal with that is a totally different topic that will not be address here.

Anyways, what was on my ToDo list was finishing the draft of this speech. Since, I was a test speaker for an evaluation workshop. I wanted keep to the theme of “empathy.” Empathy is a keep word in evaluations. There is empathy between the evaluator and the speaker, and also between the speaker and the audience.  Since I knew who workshop facilitator was, I expected “empathy” to be a key word in the workshop. However, to simply place story A next to (learn the importance of empathy) story B (use the lesson learned in A to overcome a bigger obstacle) was not enough. I needed to do something different.

I introduce the first story, I got to the most decisive part of the story and stopped. I let the cliffhanger linger, and use that part to remind me of another story. The next story I introduced was more common story of misunderstanding between husbands and wives  that also deals with the topic empathy.   I closed out that story and then finished the first one.  In this case I had a maximum of two loops open at any given time.

However, if you look at what Ken Davis did or what “Presenting Magically” the authors recommend, 3~5 open loops is best to build the suspense. However, if you only have 5- 7 minutes to deliver a presentation, it can be hard to deliver two good stories let alone more than three. So, I kept it to two.

Based on the reaction I got, that seemed to be the best choice. For something like a keynote address or a 1 hr comedy routine given by Ken Davis. Three or more stories is easy to squeeze in.  So, depending on your situation you can either try the recommendation or stick to two like I did.

Before, I have traditionally done story A then story B. But after looking at comedy routines, movies (which their weaving of the main plot and subplots), and some good advice from psychologists and NLP experts, I have decided to change the structure of my storytelling, and I think I will experiment more in the future. I hope you too, take some of this can put it to good use. I am sure you will able get a good reaction like I did.