At the very simplest, a story is:

  1. A character
  2. Who wants something
  3. Overcomes obstacles to get it

An epic story is

  1. A character
  2. Who wants something massive
  3. And is willing to risk everything to get it

The real depth of any story is not whether the character achieves the goal but who they become as they face the obstacles along the path.

Photo Credit: umjanedoan via Compfight cc
Photo credit: umjanedoan

How to Develop a Story

From a writer’s perspective, a story has to first develop a character that we care about, and we wonder what will happen to them.  Donald Miller, in his book A Million Miles in a Hundred Steps says that the character must “save the cat”.  The character must do something charitable that shows there is a decent human inside.  Rocky always does 3-4 charitable things in the first 20 minutes of each film that follows the boxer.

Step 1: “Save the Cat” – our main character does something that gets us to love him

Once we care, then something has to happen to force the character to show their hand.  In real life, we don’t change unless we are changed by events.  In the words of Soren Kierkegaard “the only precursor to change is crisis”.

So story step number 2: a crisis.  Something that forces the character to commit to the goal. In Star Wars, Luke returns from the desert trip to find his aunt and uncle have been murdered by Imperial Stormtroopers.  He commits to travel with Obi-wan to space.

Step 2: The Inciting Event – something external kicks our loveable character off of the sofa

We are now on the journey.

Joseph Campbell speaks of this moment as the Portal to Adventure.  Often the character will have approached this portal a few times in the past, only to turn back at the last moment.  Something happens to push them over the edge.  It might be a mentor that says “things will be ok for you”.  It might be a love interest who says “do it for me!”  It might be a coincidence that the hero reads as divine message saying “it is you”.

The adventure begins.  Often a few easy victories give the hero (and the readers) a sense that this is going to work out well.

In an interesting story, there are positive turns and negative turns.  In Homer’s Odysseus, the hero makes amazing progress towards his home using the magic of the wind that the Gods gave to him in a bag.  Joy.  Progress.  Then, the crew open the bag to see if they can get home even quicker.  Opening the bag is a negative turn.  The uncontrolled wind escapes from the bag and blows the ship way, way, way back far, far, far away from home, even further than from where they had begun.

The positive turns allow us to keep the reader engaged and hopeful of the final outcome.

The negative turns allow us to develop the character of the hero.  Kurt Vonnegut says “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Step 3: Positive Turns, Negative Turns

The trials and tribulations, hopes and dashed dreams continue for a while.  We are watching the hero gather resources, make friends, identify enemies, trust those that are not worthy of trust, disobey those that should really have been obeyed – make a mess out of easy situations, and just pull it together to make it through the difficult challenges.

Then, the novelty wears off and the hero realises that they don’t feel like they are making progress.  I am reminded of the feeling when I sail between the coast and an island.  When I set out from the shore of Australia to sail to the Whitsunday islands, at first the coast behind me got rapidly smaller – I felt like I was flying out to sea.  Then comes the interminable middle.  The coast is no longer shrinking, but the islands don’t seem to be getting any bigger.  All I know is that wave after wave is hitting my boat.  I stay in this state for hours.  Then, all of a sudden, the islands rapidly grow larger and larger.

In the interminable middle, the hero must find a way to overcome self doubt as well as the many obstacles that block the path to the goal.

We then reach a point of disillusion.  This is the point of abandon.  The hero is tired, has lost sight of the original goal, feels like they are making no progress.

The hero wants to give up.  It feels pointless to go on.

Again, in good story, we need an external cause that pushes the hero to one last push.  It might be a friend that reappears and supports.  It might be an evil enemy doing something that is double the despicable of anything he has done before.  It might be the loss of the hero’s closest ally.  It might be the death of the hero’s mentor (remember Obi-Wan sacrificing himself to Darth?).

The hero, this time without hope for themselves, having lost their own ego reason for taking up the original mission takes one last push – and this push is enough to break the deadlock of the interminable middle and open up the return home.

Step 4: Disillusionment and the Point of Abandon, The Final Push

The hero has achieved the original goal.  Prometheus achieves stealing fire from the Gods and returns to the world.  Luke and his allies blow up the Death Star with a last, final, spiritually enhanced missile (“just like shooting swamp rats back home!”).

The hero returns to his village, to those that knew him before his journey.

Sometimes the return is the most challenging.  The hero has become a very different person though the obstacles they have overcome, but their mother and father, their brothers and sisters still see the old version of the person.  It takes tremendous effort to get the old friends and family to see the new person and let go of the old person.

In a movie, we leave the cinema with a sense of closure, that a full cycle has finished.  In a book we finish with a sense that the universe has been restored to a new point of equilibrium.  In real life, we realise that this epic story is just a tiny sub-plot in a bigger and bigger story.  In real life, the meaning is not designed into the events by an author, it is we ourselves who must create the meaning that can fit the events of our lives and give us the feeling that it is worth waking up again and experiencing more tomorrow.

Step 5: The Return

This then, is a story:

Hero + Goal + Obstacles + Resources + Friends + Enemies + Learning and Growing to become the person that can succeed

 

Further Resources on Story

This is a series of 10 interviews with the expert coaches during the IESE EMBA Intensive week 2013.  (If you are viewing via rss, video on the blog here).  The Expert Contributors are:

  • Tony Anagor ([twitter-follow screen_name=’lifestyledmc’])
  • Florian Mueck ([twitter-follow screen_name=’the7minutestar’])
  • Conor Neill (Me!) ([twitter-follow screen_name=’cuchullainn’])
  • Tobias Rodrigues ([twitter-follow screen_name=’conflictmentor’])
  • John Zimmer ([twitter-follow screen_name=’zimmerjohn’])

The Speaking Guru Interviews

Questions from You

What questions do you have for next year’s set of expert interviews?

6 Keys to Get Email Read

Here are 6 keys to engage the reader when you ask for some help via email:

  1. Indicate the social connection between sender and reader – where did you meet?  who put you in contact?  “We met at the Foundum Unplugged conference 2 weeks ago”
  2. Understand the readers perspective – what context (background information) does the reader need to take a decision/act upon the email?  This is often best provided as a url link to supporting information so as to keep the email body short.
  3. Explain why the reader was specifically selected as a source of potential help.  “I am contacting you because you have over 8 years of experience in the industry”
  4. Show that you have already made some effort to understand the domain before asking for help.  “I have spoken to X and to Y, I have read Z book.”
  5. Keep it short.  Many emails are much too long – the sender has no edit process before sending the “draft” email.   (Here’s a nice email policy called three.sentenc.es)
  6. Clarify exactly what is wanted: No effort to clarify what you are asking for.  ”Help” is too vague. What do you want the reader to do when they finish reading?  “Meet next Monday”; “Call me to set up a site visit”; “Forward the email to John”.

What gets email read in your inbox?

What tips do you have?

There is a power tool in negotiation.  I would say this is the single most useful tactic that I use in my years of selling (I sell private jets among other high value products).

It is not competitive, it is not aggressive, it is not avoiding anything.

It does not require massive intellectual development, years of training or genetic gifts.

It requires no study, no poetic ability nor any magical secret ingredients.

It is …

 

Silence.

Silence.

Me: “What is your best price?”

Supplier: “Blah, blah [Product feature #2], blah… I can offer you €100”

Me: “Hmmm.” and wait…  10…  20 seconds…  (tension increasing)

Supplier: “Ok, I can give you €90…  but that is our best price”

Me:  “Hmmm.”  and wait…  10… 20 seconds… (tension increasing)

… and on…

If someone asked you, “What is your job?”, what would your response be?  Go ahead, take a minute to think about your answer.  I asked a similar question a few weeks ago in my post Become Indispensable: Solve Interesting Problems)

Professor Fred Kofman tells a story about a question that changed his outlook on this question.

Did you say that you’re a coach? Entrepreneur? Do you manage operations? Maybe CEO?  Well, as Fred points out, what you think is your job is not actually your job.

Your Job is Not Your Job

Here is Fred’s presentation:

How do you answer now?

Did Fred change your mind?  (Fred’s full presentation is available here on youtube)

How to Give a Killer Presentation

Chris Anderson, Owner of TED
Presentations rise or fall on the quality of the idea, the narrative, and the passion of the speaker. It’s about substance, not speaking style or multimedia pyrotechnics. It’s fairly easy to “coach out” the problems in a talk, but there’s no way to “coach in” the basic story—the presenter has to have the raw material. If you have something to say, you can build a great talk. But if the central theme isn’t there, you’re better off not speaking. Decline the invitation. Go back to work, and wait until you have a compelling idea that’s really worth sharing.  Read More

 

The Inconvienient Truth about Change Management –

McKinsey & Company
Conventional change management approaches have done little to change the fact that most change  programs fail. The odds can be greatly improved by a number of counterintuitive insights that take into account the irrational but predictable nature of how employees interpret their environment and choose to act.  Read More

 

11 Simple Concepts to Become a Better Leader

Dave Kerpen
All 11 concepts are simple, and yet, perhaps in the name of revenues or the bottom line, we often lose sight of the simple things – things that not only make us human, but can actually help us become more successful. Read More

 

5 Models for Leading Change

Tristan Wember
In this article we introduce five models for leading change. No single model isright. However, they all have something valuable on offer and can help us to navigate our way through complex organisational situations or circumstances.  Read More

Diapositiva14

The Webinar:

This is the recording of the IESE Develop Your Communication Skills webinar we ran on 13th April 2013.  It is here on the IESE Business School YouTube channel.

Storify Summary of the Webinar via Twitter Hashtag: #iesewebinar

Resources cited in the Webinar:

Chiara Ojeda
Chiara Ojeda

Chiara Ojeda who writes the Tweak Your Slides blog has recently posted a new set of visuals called Presenting As Yourself. It has powerful visuals. It provides great reminders of the important aspects of communicating with impact; communicating in a way that engages the audience and lets your message stick.

Presenting As Yourself

What are your favourite books, blogs, youtube videos, general resources on presentation delivery?

I wrote “Give a TED talk” on my bucket list 4 years ago, today I feel happy to see the idea come to fruition. It is not a TED Talk per-se, i.e. it is not up there on a stage, but in my mind almost better – a lesson from my class, and a concept that is very important today. We are increasingly overloaded with information, but need to be more and more careful how we trust this information. We want to connect to the meaning behind the information. As the lesson says “Ethos and Pathos are missing”…

What Aristotle and Joshua Bell can teach us about Persuasion

Imagine you are one of the world’s greatest violin players, and you decide to conduct an experiment: play inside a subway station and see if anyone stops to appreciate when you are stripped of a concert hall and name recognition. Joshua Bell did this, and Conor Neill channels Aristotle to understand why the context mattered.

Lesson by Conor Neill, animation by Animationhaus.

View the full lesson, additional resources and the quick quiz on the TED Education website: here

Joshua Bell on violin

Joshua Bell, “Poet of the Violin”

Often referred to as the “poet of the violin,” Joshua Bell is one of the world’s most celebrated violinists. He continues to enchant audiences with his breathtaking virtuosity, tone of sheer beauty, and charismatic stage presence.

Aristotle

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher ofAlexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics,government, ethics, biology, and zoology. Together with Plato and Socrates (Plato’s teacher), Aristotle is one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy. Aristotle’s writings were the first to create a comprehensive system of Western philosophy, encompassing morality, aesthetics,logic, science, politics, and metaphysics.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric is an ancient Greek treatise on the art of persuasion, dating from the 4th century BC. The English title varies: typically it is titled Rhetoric, the Art of Rhetoric, or a Treatise on Rhetoric.

The Words, the Meaning, the Effect

JL Austin’s short book

As we communicate, there are 3 separate processes at play:

  1. what we say,
  2. what we mean when we say it, and
  3. what we accomplish by saying it

A rhetorician would call these 3 separate processes: 1) locution, 2) illocution, and 3) perlocution.  In my courses we use the shorthand “Point X” to refer to the perlocutionary effect.  This is where effective persuasive communication must begin.


Speech Act theory was laid out by the philosopher J. L. Austin in his small book “How to do things with Words”.

Words that Change the World

One difference between gods and men is that a god’s words directly change the world, whereas the words of men depend on action of others to cause the change.  A god might say “let there be light”, and the sun appears.  A man might say “can you turn on the light?” and another person hears, understands and reaches his hand out to the switch.

However, we do have occasions and rituals in which a man’s words do cause a change in the world.  These occasions the speech is called “performative”.  Consider the following statements:

1a) Conor says, “James and Sarah are married.”
1b) A judge says, “James and Sarah, I now pronounce you man and wife.”

2a) Conor says, “That ball was on the line!”
2b) The umpire says, “Point to Rafa Nadal.  Game.”

The a) statements communicate information.  These are non-performative utterances.  The b) statements directly change the state of the world.  The statements of the judge or the umpire are performative utterances.

Performative utterances are not limited to judges, umpires and gods.  Consider:

3a) Conor says, “I would bet on New Zealand to beat England”
3b) Conor says, “I bet you €10 that New Zealand beat England today”

This third examples show the establishment of an verbal contract.  Legal codes in many nations hold these verbal contracts as valid on a par with written contracts.  Performative Speech acts include promising, ordering, greeting, warning, inviting and congratulating.

Types of Meaning

John Searle gives the following classification of illocutionary speech acts:

  • assertives = speech acts that commit a speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition, e.g. reciting a creed
  • directives = speech acts that are to cause the hearer to take a particular action, e.g. requests, commands and advice
  • commissives = speech acts that commit a speaker to some future action, e.g. promises and oaths
  • expressives = speech acts that express the speaker’s attitudes and emotions towards the proposition, e.g. congratulations, excuses and thanks
  • declarations = speech acts that change the reality in accord with the proposition of the declaration, e.g. baptisms, pronouncing someone guilty or pronouncing someone husband and wife

Political Speaking

Politicians often speak in a manner that treads a fine line between performative and non-performative speech.  They make statements that sound like assertive promises, but if you listen exactly to the words, they avoid the full commitment.  We hear the promise, but if later their statement is fact-checked, it can slide by as a non-performative.

This has led to a great distrust in any sort of vague speaking.  If you mean to make a promise, it is important in today’s environment to state it in clear and non-ambiguous terms.

Remove “maybe”, “try” and “might” from your vocabulary.  They turn a performative utterance into a vague, grey mush.

For your words to change the world, be concise and direct with your performative statements.

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