Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Tell it better: Storytelling with surprise and suspense

(Editor's note: Storytelling's the big buzz word in communications and marketing. But we've forgotten how this ancient art works. This "Tell it better" series hopes to revive and hone your storytelling skills for any format, from public speaking in the style of TED to social media. Want a storytelling workshop? Email me at eloquentwoman AT

I see one big victim of our modern-day PowerPoint habit: We're killing off Grandma too early. And that should be reason enough to work on your storytelling skills.

Far from burying the lede, the day-in day-out use of informational presentations--the kind that start with a three-bullet slide titled "Today's Report"--have almost entirely stamped out one of the great elements of storytelling, the element of surprise or suspense. Surprise and its drawn-out cousin, suspense, are vital to a good story that keeps your listeners on the edge of their seats or glued to the screen. Signaling the end at the start? Not so much. That's true when I'm coaching speakers to give talks in the style of TED, or working as a strategist with social media content developers.

Recently, I was working with a speaker whose TED-style talk hinged on issues his family faced with an aging relative. But instead of taking us on that journey with him, the speaker felt compelled to start by saying, "I'm going to tell you a story in which my grandmother dies at the end, and I hope it helps you and your family as it did mine." Yikes, and what a way to take all the suspense out of the pulling the drain out of the tub right before you step into the bath.

Your surprise or suspense could simply be a perspective we weren't anticipating, something that puts the lie to your appearance or bio, something you've never told anyone.  Most TED talks have some kind of surprise in them, even if it's only that you've been tying your shoes wrong all your life. But surprise and suspense also can move the action of your story forward. In a recent roundup review of book thrillers in the New York Times, we learn the key to suspense from a critic of fiction:
There are a lot of ways for a novelist to create suspense, but also really only two: one a trick, one an art. 
The trick is to keep a secret. Or many secrets, even. In Lee Child’s books, Jack Reacher always has a big mystery to crack, but there are a series of smaller mysteries in the meantime, too, a new one appearing as soon as the last is resolved. J. K. Rowling is another master of this technique — Who gave Harry that Firebolt? How is Rita Skeeter getting her info? 
The art, meanwhile, the thing that makes “Pride and Prejudice” so superbly suspenseful, more suspenseful than the slickest spy novel, is to write stories in which characters must make decisions. “Breaking Bad” kept a few secrets from its audience, but for the most part it was fantastically adept at forcing Walter and Jesse into choice, into action. The same is true of “Freedom,” or “My Brilliant Friend,” or “Anna Karenina,” all novels that are hard to stop reading even when it seems as if it should be easy.
In the case of the speaker I was coaching, we went with decision-making as the suspenseful part of the story. Every decision moved the action forward, rising to a climax, then falling away to the conclusion, giving the story a strong dramatic arc.

It's a big shift from the common advice to "Tell them what you're going to tell them--tell them--tell them what you told them." I've been told that that set of directions originated in army field operations, where you often need a troop to memorize directions without benefit of a pen to write them down. But it really doesn't translate to storytelling.

That doesn't mean, by the way, that you are limited to chronological order when telling a story with suspense. Far from it. One of my favorite stories shifts from present day to a secret that began in the past, and back to the present day, where the secret is finally revealed. That shifting takes us on a journey with the storyteller, who held back on his powerful conclusion, until the conclusion. Do the same, storytellers. You and your audience will be glad you did.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by _SiD_)

Got a panel coming up? Whether you're a conference organizer, speaker, or moderator, you'll have a better panel--and a sparkling discussion--if you plan with The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. At just $3.99 in all ebook formats, it's like having a coach with whom you can prepare and bring on stage with you.

No comments: