How to tell great stories

Ira Glass, presenter of This American Life, tells us that there are three basic building blocks of the story – the anecdote, “bait” and moments of reflection (video here).  We improve a story by building up the central conflict, ensuring that the listeners can relate to one of the central characters and by adding surprise.

 

5 Step Story Structure

Here goes my 5 step process for telling good stories (I have been practicing it with my 3 year old daughter for her bedtime stories… and getting to the point that she wants one of my stories instead of one from the book).

  1. Begin stating the moment in time:
    1. “A week ago” or
    2. “Twenty years ago today”, or
    3. “Once upon a time”.
  2. Introduce the situation and key characters: 
    1. “I was sitting with my grandfather. My grandfather was a tall man, always impeccably dressed in a suit. He had been a country bank manager all of his working life. I was 13 years old.  As we did every Sunday, we were sat watching the horse racing on television on Sunday afternoon.” or
    2. “A girl lived in a small cabin by the lake. She lived with two friends – her dog Ruff and her horse See-Saw. Each morning she set off around the lake to collect mushrooms for food and wood for a fire.  Each day she would set off on the walk with Ruff leading ahead and See-Saw walking behind. Some days it rained, some days it was warm and sunny.”
  3. Something out of the ordinary occurs
    1. “but on this particular Sunday he turned to me and said ‘would you like to see something?’. Before waiting for an answer he got up from his chair and left the room”
    2. “Now on this particular day, the girl began her walk… but Ruff stopped in his tracks and would not move.  There was a noise in the forest and a cold wind blew across the surface of the lake”
  4. Allow the tension to build – pause, add detail to the complication
    1. “I sat there for a moment not knowing whether to follow him or to stay where I was.  I was surprised and I wondered what it was that my grandfather was going to show me.”
    2. “The girl asked herself ‘what can it be? what might be making that noise?’  A few moments later she heard the sound clearly again.  There was something in the forest”.
  5. Resolve the complication
    1. “It was ten minutes before he returned to the room.  He came in with a large bundle under his arms.  I could see colours, fabrics…  clothes or robes of some sort.  He carefully laid the bundle down and started to separate the pieces.  ‘These are my freemason robes.  I have been a free mason for 50 years.  I am the head of the Leinster region.  These robes mean a lot to me.  These badges mean a lot to me.'”
    2. …at this point my daughter demands that the noise be a fairy or Barbie or a Princess or a flying horse called Dina…  and takes control of the story.

Here is an example from Japanese folklore of a fable that shows the story steps put together into a longer flow:

The Stonecutter

The Stonecutter on Wikipedia.

Many years ago, a poor stonecutter spent day after day in the quarry. He chipped away at the rockface with his simple tools.  Hour after hour, day after day, the clink, clank noise of

his chisel and hammer rang through the quarry.  One day the man shouted out loud his frustration “why can I not be powerful like the rich man?”  A fairy heard his wish and appeared at his side and said “I will grant your wish.”

As a rich man, the stonecutter felt powerful.  He gave his servants orders.  One day the rich man was outside and the sun shone hotly upon him.  He said “The sun is more powerful than I.  I wish I were the sun”.  The fairy granted his wish.

Now he was the sun.  He shone down powerfully upon the earth.  One day a cloud passed in front of him.  “That cloud is more powerful than I.  I wish I were that cloud”.  The fairy granted his wish.

As the cloud he blocked the sun day after day, causing darkness and cold.  But one day a wind blew up and pushed away the cloud.  “I wish I were the wind”.  The fairy granted his wish.

As the wind he blew dust storms and hurricanes.  Nothing could stand in his way.  One day he came to the mountain and couldn’t move it.  “The mountain resists me.  I wish I were the mountain”.  The fairy granted his wish.

As the mountain he was immovable.  Nothing could budge him.  But one day he felt something chipping away at him.  It was a poor stonecutter.  “The stonecutter is mightiest of all.  I wish I was the stonecutter”.  One last time, the fairy granted his wish.

What is the meaning of this story?  What does it represent?  What does it make you think about?

Why do some people find games more fulfilling than real life?

This is another blog post inspired by a TED video. This one on the world of online games by Jane McGonigle. 

Humans spend 3 billion hours a week spent playing online games.  This is a lot.  Many American teenagers will have accumulated more hours playing online games than school hours by the age of 18. 

Two questions: 1) why? and 2) what are they learning?

The answer to number one is quite simple.  I can approach this as a economist might approach it.  Each individual case will have their specific reasons, but on a massive scale people play because there is something better about being in the virtual game world than they get in their real world.  Jane McGonigle in her TED talk identifies 4 specific disciplines that are part of a gamer’s experience of the virtual game world.

  1. Urgent Optimism – extreme self motivation, the desire to act immediately to tackle a problem and to start now with a belief in a good chance of success.  There is a constant belief in the existance of the epic win – a winning outcome that you sense will be bigger and better than anything you could imagine.
  2. Social Fabric – instinct to trust.  The attitude of gamers in virtual online worlds is to trust and share resources and challenges with unknown strangers.
  3. Blissful productivity – we know that we are happy when we are working hard.  The average gamer of World of Warcraft plays 22 hours a week.  These are not 22 hours of watching the clock, waiting for the coffee break or the school bell to ring.  These are 22 hours of intense problem solving, collaboration, trying and trying and experimenting until the gamer achieves an outcome.  Gamers know that they are most fulfilled when they are totally absorbed in their tasks.
  4. Epic Meaning – gamers love to be attached to awe inspiring missions.  They might be tapping buttons and shifting pixels, but they believe that this is connected to a really worthwhile purpose – saving the galaxy, taking Argentina to the world cup final, defeating evil.

An the answer to question 2 – what are they learning?  Jess says they are learning to be “super empowered hopeful individuals”.  The pity is that they are not taking these super powers – persistance against all odds, trust and openness to strangers, desire to work hard and faith in something bigger – over to the real world.

What can we do to make real world more like these games?  What can be done to allow kids to feel that it is worth working hard to build something important?

Overcoming Adversity? Aimee Mullins at TED.com

How can I get through the obstacles to something better on the other side?

Aimee Mullins was born without her fibular bones, the smaller of the bones connecting knee to ankle.  The doctor had to tell her parents that she was disabled, had to amputate what was left of her legs and tell her parents that the prognosis was not good for a full life.  She would not be normal.  She tells that at the age of 15 she would have traded anything to get rid of her prosthetic limbs and have “normal” legs.  She would have given anything to get rid of her “problem”.

Now she is not so sure.

Life is not what is beyond the obstacles.  The adversity, the obstacles, the difficulty is life.  There is no “other side”.

“Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you’re always afraid that something or someone will take it away” Seneca

Comfort is the absence of growth, the absence of learning.  Panic and fear would be the other extreme.  Between comfort and panic lies learning and growth.  I often begin my classes with a diagram of three circles on the blackboard. The smallest circle is the “Comfort Zone”.  These are things you know you can do.  People sitting passively in the classroom with their arms crossed, not raising their hand, are in their comfort zone. They are not growing as people.  The Largest circle is the “Panic Zone”.  This represents the things that are far beyond my competence and instead of allowing growth, they induce fear and impede any process of growth or learning – the animal part of my brain just wants to get out of there and kicks in the fight or flight responses (making my human brain disengage and dumbing down my potential responses).  The zone in the middle between the Comfort Zone and the Panic Zone is the Learning Zone.

As I spend time in my learning zone, my comfort zone expands as there are now more and more areas in which I become competent and proficient.

“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” John A. Shedd

Here is the video of Aimee Mullins at TED (on the blog).

I finish with a quote that I liked a lot.  “I think that there were only two people in my high school that were comfortable there, and I think they are both pumping gas now.” Grant Show

Happy Easter to all.  I spent about 3 hours procrastinating instead of writing and it resulted in a redesign of my blog layout using the new template designer that blogger.com launched yesterday. I hope you like the new look.

JK Rowling: The Fringe Benefits of Failure

JK Rowling gave the Harvard commencement speech in 2008. I love the way she wins over the audience by speaking about her own life. She speaks powerfully about the greatest lessons that she has learnt – always from her failures.

What would JK tell her 21 year old self? “Life is not a checklist; a CV is not life. Life is difficult and complicated and beyond anyone’s control.”

“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”

“Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one”.

“You might never fail on the scale that I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all in which case you fail by default.”

According to the author of the Harry Potter books and the current twelfth richest woman in Britain, failure gave her something that you cannot learn in any school, through any course, but only through facing the abyss of seeing everything you thought was important taken away from you:

  • security in her ability to survive
  • strength because she saw her ability to survive really tough times
  • discipline to focus on the important
  • friends who really care, who have come through adversity

I put the video here (you will need to click through if viewing via RSS).  The full text of her speech is available at the Harvard Magazine.

She finishes with ancient words of wisdom from Seneca “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”

There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does

Yep, I have been watching more TED talks.  This time…  Daniel Pink. Thanks to Tim for the link.

Daniel Pink describes a 1945 Karl Duncker social science experiment called the Candle Problem.  Subjects are shown into a room and given the objects as seen in the image to the right and are asked to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax does not drip onto the table. People start by trying all sorts of ways of melting the candle base and sticking it to the wall with the thumb tacks.

The solution is here.  but… think just a little bit before you go there 😉

The interesting part of the experiment comes when Doctor Karl introduced incentives.  Group A are first told that that they will be timed to establish averages for how long it takes to solve the problem.  Group B are told that they will be timed and the top 25% will receive $5, and the top, fastest time of the day will receive $20.

How should it work?  Which group should be fastest?  This experiment has been replicated multiple times over 40 years.  The results are always the same.  One of the groups is a degree worse, averaging three and a half minutes worse than the other.

Incentives should work…  Bonuses, performance pay… “If – then” rewards

But they don’t work here.  Group B, the incentivised lot, are three and a half minutes worse.

Three and a half minutes worse than the non-incentivized Group A.  Why does this happen?  How could this be?  How can these incentives not work?

The candle problem requires lateral, creative thinking… it is non-obvious.  If you have looked at the solution, it is not directly clear.

“There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does” Daniel Pink. 

What type of work is being outsourced to “cheaper” locations?  It is the process driven, clear step by step type work.  What type of work is not being outsourced?  Creative, non-obvious, lateral thinking type work.

Direct incentives don’t deliver improved performance in creative, non-obvious problem, lateral thinking type work. What does?  I recommend you watch the video and see Dan tell you the three things that really do improve performance in the type of work that most professional people are engaged in:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

Lean Startup. Erik Ries. The one presentation that I would not miss as a startup

“This is probably the one presentation that I would not miss as a startup out of all the presentations ever made.” Ville Vesterinen on ArcticStartup.com.

You can watch Eric’s video presentation below.

[Those viewing via subscription may need to view original blog article to see video]

Great video from Seth Godin. How to finish your projects.

A great presentation from Seth Godin: Quieting the Lizard Brain.

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I love Seth Godin’s blog and entire philosophy on life.  He regularly talks of the importance of people being responsible for the consequences of their actions.
In this video Seth talks about breaking the chains of procrastination and becoming a completer of projects.  The difference between the want-to-bes and the people that make things happen in this life. I recently had the pleasure of a training session with Victor Kuppers.  He eloquently put the difference between the “chusqueros” and the “cracks” is that the “chusquero” knows the answer, the “crack” also does something about the answer.
*chusquero = derrogatory spanish term for a person; *crack = highly positive spanish term for a person