The Phenomena of Storytelling
After many years of observing other communicators, breaking down their messages and the practice of public speaking myself, I have come to understand (while still learning of course) what kind of general structure or flow makes for a effective sermon or teaching. However, the thing that would always challenge me was the breakdown of a single component: the story.
Call them stories, illustrations, examples, whatever you want. But these play a critical role in helping people identify and remember a point of truth that you are making – after all, everyone loves a good story. But what makes for a good story? You might hear people say, “Well some people are just good storytellers, they just have it.” This may be true and satisfactory a hearer, but in the interest of our own training, influence and communication I would raise the questions:
- If you don’t have it, where do you find it?
- If you do have it, how can you better leverage it?
By breaking down the phenomena of storytelling, I will respond to these questions in a series of posts to help you (and I) become better storytellers.
Part 1: The Use of Neg-Story
Incongruence. It’s a fancy term but a profound one.
Would you believe that incongruence is one of only three attributes that makes something funny? It’s why we laugh at characters like Donkey from Shrek, Andy Samberg playing an adult role in any movie, and the majority of Arrested Development or The Office (among a billion other things).
So while I had inevitably experienced incongruence across my lifetime, I was first introduced to the concept when I did a subject on comedy at university. A simple definition of incongruence with reference to space could be: “not fitting well with something else” or “those two things don’t make sense together”, but it can also be used with reference to time, such as when you take one position on something, and then moments later you take a contrary position.
While the use of incongruence will add flavour and attraction to any story, it is this second definition that I want to explore with the storytelling phenomenon the neg-story.
Neg-Story: What is it?
A neg-story is the decision to include an secondary (often short) story before your primary truth-containing or memorable story. This story deliberately draws the listeners to identify with a feeling or experience that will later create greater incongruence (or you could use the term contrast) with your primary story.
For example, you might have an illustration about how important it is to have other people on your football team looking out for you. They protect you, see things that you don’t see, and even call out when trouble nears. For Christians, we might even compare that to the Holy Spirit. Good story, most people will identify with feelings of assurance, and comfort.
Now a neg-story contains the opposite feelings, and ideally has a link to your primary story theme. For me, it would be a story of the time when I was supposed to be a football boundary umpire, but got recruited on the day due to a shortage of players. My opponent was like a giant, I had no idea what I was doing, and within the first 10 minutes of the match, out of nowhere, I got kneed in the thigh by said giant, rendering me scared, bruised and lying in the foetal position on the ground. Has anyone had an experience like that? (with focus on bold ideas)
Neg-Story: How does it work?
A neg-story positions the lister in a place where they are already identifying the consequence of a negative outcome, which means when you share an illustration or story about the positive outcome it seems so much more significant.
It’s like this, if you drink a glass of milk you might describe it as sweet and smooth, but if you drink the exact same glass of milk right after you have eaten a red hot jalapeño, it is not only sweet and smooth, but also soothing, refreshing, perhaps even lifesaving!
It’s sharing defeat before victory, it’s the priming before the topcoat, it’s a staple of movies and books, and yet we rarely do it when sharing our stories verbally. When used correctly a neg-story can be a powerful tool, and you a powerful storyteller.
But before you start using the technique keep in mind the following:
- Make sure the neg-story is true – no gain is worth the loses associated with inauthenticity.
- Neg-stories aren’t necessary, they are an addition. Your primary story should be able to hold attention in it’s own right. If it doesn’t, change the story.
- Don’t use it every time – like any communication technique, they are made to be used with subtlety and strategically, if people pick up a pattern, you lose them.