Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Tell It Better: Why you should "plant the seed" for a storytelling payoff

I'm a longtime fan of The West Wing, the Aaron Sorkin television series about the White House, and not just because it began while I served in the Clinton Administration, capturing so much of our daily work. The reason I go back to it again and again is for the sheer power of the storytelling, and a recent interview about one powerful episode lets me share a vital skill for storytellers of all kinds.

In "In Excelsis Deo," episode 10 of the series's first season, actor Richard Schiff's character, Toby Ziegler, gets involved in the burial of a homeless vet after Ziegler's business card is discovered in a coat worn by the homeless man. There's a story-within-the story about the President's secretary, Mrs. Landingham, played by Kathryn Joosten. In an exchange with the President's aide, she reveals that she's reminded at the holidays of her twin sons, who served and were killed in the Vietnam war.

On The West Wing Weekly, a new podcast hosted by West Wing actor Josh Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway of Song Exploder, actor Schiff recalled in an interview that that moment had been foreshadowed a couple of episodes earlier, when President Bartlett remarks to two staffers that she'd had sons who were killed in the war. (The podcast goes episode by episode from the beginning of the show, a real fan's delight.)

He used it as an illustration of a two-step in storytelling that can make your stories more powerful: 1) Plant a seed early on, and 2) Come back to it later for the payoff. It's a great way to give your story the impact it may be lacking. Instead of just telling the story from top to bottom, in one go, you're in effect dropping a clue or two early in your talk, article, video, or post, then circling back to underscore why it is meaningful, for a payoff that works for both storyteller and audience. Here's how Schiff describes the technique:
The great writers and the great storytellers earn every moment. If you do not plant the seeds, then the reveal isn’t impactful. All you’ve got to do is look at Breaking Bad and they plant seeds three years before the payoff. Someone said the other day, “That was like a five year movie--an ongoing novel.” And Aaron does the same thing. He does not just go for, “Oh, it would be cool if she lost her two kids.” He plants it, and then it pays off. 
This may take some work if you are trying to shift from a standard informational approach to your presentations, speeches, articles, and other storytelling devices. Planting a seed and waiting for the payoff--and planning where it comes--is exactly the opposite approach. Your viewer or listener or reader may not realize (and probably should not realize) when a seed has been planted in your least, not until the payoff. That realization is part of the payoff, and a critical way to engage your audience.

Take a look at the payoff in this instance. What was a passing reference a couple of episodes ago, when the seed was planted, suddenly becomes a vivid and moving story in the context of the holiday on which this episode focused. Can you use this tactic in your next storytelling efforts?

(The West Wing photo)

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.

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