Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Tell It Better: Avoiding chronological order when telling a story

People often ask me "What's your favorite TED talk?" I always tell them that my favorite TED talk wasn't actually a TED talk: It's this tale of a family tree told by Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel laureate in genetics research. He's now the head of Britain's Royal Society, but at the time, was president of Rockefeller University in New York City. And the thing I think I love most about this story is the way it plays with chronological order.

Briefly, the talk establishes Nurse's early curiosity about why he was different from his siblings, and an awkward conversation with his mother about the family tree. Then, moving into the present day, he learns while applying for a work visa for the U.S. that the person he thought was his aunt was really his mother. After that, he unravels the mystery, going back in time to describe what happened to his real mother and himself as a child. He comes back to the present briefly to reflect on what he's learned, and ends with one unforgettable thing: That his mother always kept a framed photo of him on her nightstand, alongside those of her other children, all the years they were apart.

The chronological shuffle is a feature that differentiates this talk (and your storytelling for professional purposes) from the way most of us tell stories in everyday life. We start at the beginning and plow straight through to the end, no detours, backtracking, or moving around of the timeline. The trouble? Listeners get impatient with the long way around version of most stories, which often lack mystery and suspense. (If you've found yourself thinking "And then?" during a story, this is often the culprit.) There's a tendency to explain the significance of early steps in the story, rather than to plant the early seeds of the story and let them payoff later. Nurse certainly could have started this story with his mother in her youth, and fast-forwarded to the present day. But that wouldn't have been as gripping, nor as satisfying in the end. Go ahead, try it for yourself: Retell the story in chronological order and see whether it works as well.

There are many more features that make this talk irresistible. The protagonist, like a good hero in a dramatic story, has many tries and failures before he discovers what he is seeking. The story is built around a mystery, a long-held family secret--secret even to the teller, who was most affected by it. That adds the essential element of suspense and surprise in storytelling. It's a humbling story: Who can brag about not know who his mother was, particularly when his own field of research is genetics? And the rearrangement of the chronology creates a kind of symmetry in the storytelling--or, as one of my workshop participants has said, the stories here nest within each other. It's got humor and deep pathos, making it cathartic for the audience. And it ends with what I call the invisible visual, that indelible mind's-eye image of the framed photographs at his mother's bedside.

But what really helps this talk unfold, and keeps the audience fully engaged, is that chronological shuffle. How can you reshuffle your story's chronology to make it more compelling?

Read the text of the talk here, and watch the video here or below:

The Moth and the World Science Festival present Paul Nurse: Family Trees Can Be Dangerous

(Creative Commons licensed photo by David Flam)

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