Why crime stories work

The human brain is basically a prediction machine. At any given time, it tries to figure out what happens next. Tension comes from the uncertainty about the prediction: Will the prediction match the true course of events?

That’s e.g. why criminal stories are so popular. It’s also why we love a good riddle or puzzle. We love to figure things out (and be right about it).

Tension increases when hope joins the party. When we hope for a certain outcome, it hurts even more when that outcome doesn’t come true – e.g. because we sympathised with one of the parties involved in the criminal story. Or we rooted for one side in a tennis match.

Movies make shameless use of this. Great movies let us anticipate how the story unfolds only to leave us in the uncertain about whether we’re actually right. Worse: Even if they resolve part of the story, they will leave at least one piece open so that there’s always something to anticipate and predict.

Great communicators create tension by using this principle, too. They trigger our prediction machine and then use our anticipation of the resolution to keep us hooked. They might e.g. show us a clever way to solve one of our problems and then use our desire to figure this out and make it work for us to lead us to listen to them, glued to their lips, for more than an hour.

(PS: If you want to learn how to make use of this in your own communication, you might want to consider joining my masterclass “Leaders Light the Path” which launches this fall. Get notified here.)

12 angry men

In my keynote speeches I often ask people what’s so different about movies that we find them entertaining for 2+ hours while most presentations are boring as hell so that we start looking for an escape before reaching the 2 minute mark.

Among the top responses is music. And it’s true. Great music makes great films even greater. But it misses the point – if only because it would be an easy fix to include some music in a presentation.

The movie “12 Angry Men” creates tension from the first to the last second. We witness 12 men in a room. With no music! (And, of course, no special effects.) It’s pure story. It’s a great movie that grabs our attention (Well, mine at least).

If our story is great, we don’t need any music. Nor special effects.

Great stories are great because they resonate – not because we decorate them. They grab our attention and never release it because we can relate to the characters and their struggles. Music – and special effects in general – can make the experience even greater. But they are never the reason why it’s great in the first place.

And they never turn a lame story into a great story. They are an amplifier of greatness, not a rescue to lameness. If the story is lame, it will still be lame despite great music and great special effects.

Granted special effects can get you a short burst of excitement. They can wow your audience. But that’s about it. Most wow-effects fade quickly.

The thing is that – most likely – you don’t have the budget to produce special effects that do that trick for you. Effects that will provide that level of excitement to your audience.

(Not only) therefore, it’s much better to get the story right before we start working on the special effects.

These fascinating communicators who have their audience glued to their lips

Some people believe that tension is something you have to create artificially. Something that needs to be added to your story. Something that only Hollywood has really mastered and that they certainly don’t think about when it comes to telling customers about their topic.

And yet there are these fascinating communicators who have their audience glued to their lips after just a few sentences. How do they do this? They can’t possibly have the only exciting topic there is, or can they?

No, certainly not. But they understand a crucial factor of tension: relevance. What they say is relevant to their audience and they say it in a way that the audience can relate to.

Just like Hollywood does.

Hollywood understands that the key element to excitement is relevance. All the ingredients that we think of when we think of increasing tension in a movie depend on it. Action in a movie is boring as long as we don’t care for the people involved in the action. An elaborate soundtrack is just nice music as long as we don’t care for the people.

Movies create tension when we relate to the characters in the story. Everything else is just there to enable and amplify that. Great acting makes it easier to relate to the character. Great soundtracks focus our attention on key moments and set the mood.

The same is true for our own story. The key ingredient to create tension is relevance. If our story matters to our audience’s lives, then we can tell it in an exciting way. If it solves a problem that our audience has, or if it fulfils a desire they have, then they will want to know how. If it’s relevant, they will want to know more … and that, by the way, is the definition of suspense: wanting to know what happens next.

So, if you want your audience glued to your lips, ask yourself this: Why is it relevant to them? Why would they want to know more?

The after show ad

YouTube shows ads before and during the video. Here’s a challenge for your next ad: Can you make it so relevant that people would still watch it if it was shown after the video?

YouTube puts the burden on the content creators. It requires the content to be so attractive that viewers are willing to endure ads, even crappy ones, to get to the content. YouTube will give viewers what they came for only after they’ve watched an ad (or two). They can’t get what they came for without watching the ads.

What if you turned that upside down and took the burden on you as an ad creator? What if you made your ad so relevant that viewers would still watch them even though they already got what they came for? Is your ad that good? Would people still watch it if it was shown after the video?

The joy of figuring things out

If you enjoy puzzling, the worst thing that can happen to you is when someone else solves the puzzle for you. The joy is in the puzzling not in the picture. The whole point of puzzling is the joy in finding the right pieces and fitting them together.

Keep that in mind when communicating to a group of people who love to figure things out. The worst thing that can happen is that you figure everything out for them. On the other hand, they will love you for a good challenge. For lighting them the path in a way that they can figure it out themselves. Figureouters may be happy to learn about more efficient ways to figure things out. But they want to figure it out themselves.

The great news is that if the puzzle was just the right amount of a challenge, it’s not uncommon for puzzlers to buy more puzzles. And so we can gradually lead them to fit together ever more complex puzzles.

How far will you go when you know that you’re doing the right thing?

If you’re absolutely sure that something would be the right thing to do but you also knew that it’s against the norm, then would you still do it?

If you were forbidden to do it, would you still do it?

Even if you knew that it would cost you $250.000?

Well, George Lucas did.

He knew that it was the right thing to do to leave out the credits for Star Wars at the beginning and only show it at the end. He knew that he needed to drag the audience right into the story. That he couldn’t afford to miss a second of their attention.

It cost him $250.000. Movies were required to credit the director at the beginning if they showed any name at all (which Star Wars its sequels did because the Lucasfilm logo was present).

Lucas refused.

He had to pay a fine of $250.000 and left the Guild.

Because he knew that it was the right thing to do.

How far will you go when you know that you’re doing the right thing?

I don’t wanna hurt you

As a communicator you can play it safe and make sure that your audience feels comfortable all the time. Avoid controversial wordings and content that might be misunderstood. Use neutral language. Leave the doors open to many directions. Include as many details of your product as possible so that there’s something in it for everyone. And, of course, refrain from putting your finger in their wound.

In fact, this is the default mode for most presentations.

Yet, precisely by trying to not annoy anyone, these kinds of presentations fail to excite anyone. By trying to not hurt, they fail to create the pain that is required to take action.

The problem is that, in a way, you waive the responsibility to create the tension that’s necessary for change. You let your audience figure out why they need this badly. And immediately.

And that might not even be in your audience’s best interest. Because they might actually need your product. It might be exactly for them. Now.

So, if it is, don’t hide from creating the tension. Make them see why it is for them. Make them feel why they need it. Now.

Don’t hide from hurting your audience and exciting them when that’s what’s required for change to happen.

The magical question to increase tension and suspense

In a great movie or book, the question “What happens next” is basically the definition of tension and suspense. Whenever there’s suspense in a movie, we want to know what’s next. When there’s tension in a conversation, we want to relieve the tension.

“What’s next?” is also the magical question that keeps a speech in the flow. If you want to increase tension in your speech, the most important question to ask yourself is “What will my audience be dying to know right at this point in my speech?”

Leaving aside all the theoretical frameworks that teach us how to structure a compelling speech, this one question gets right to the heart of the matter. When you get that question right, you’ll end up at exactly the right structure without ever having to worry about any rhetorical theory.

To bring you on track to finding the appropriate question, here are a few variations for what your audience might be dying to know next:

  • “How is that possible?”
  • “Why is that?”
  • “What can we do about it?”
  • “How does this relate to our experience from that other project?”
  • “How did you manage to overcome that?”
  • “What does it cost?”

So, what’s your audience dying to hear next?

Would they come back?

Remember serial TV? We had to wait a full week to watch the next episode of our favorite show (which was yours?). Back then, great TV shows excelled at creating cliffhangers.

For many of us, it’s a love-hate-relationship with cliffhangers. In a way, it’s why we watched the show in the first place. That feeling of tension. That urge to want to know so badly what happens next. But then, when at the moment of greatest tension, they just said: “To be continued … Please come back next week!” … we were all like “Gosh. Really?!”

But of course we came back.

Is there a moment in your presentation when you could do the same? When you could stop and the audience would riot because they want to know what happens next so badly? A moment to guarantee that your entire audience would come back? (and bring their friends along because they couldn’t help but tell them…)

“Would they come back?” is a much more ambitious goal than “Will they stay on their chairs until the end?”.

Once people sit down, there’s a good chance that they will stick through to the end. You’ll have to torment them quite a bit before they will actually stand up and leave.

But having them come back is something else entirely. Was it really that good?

So, was it? Would your audience come back? What would you need to change so that they would?

The habit of tuning out of a presentation

Ever seen this empty expression on the faces of people having to sit through a sales presentation?

I guess we’ve all been there.

We totally understand: They think that their product is amazing. And it probably is.

We also understand that they want us to learn about that amazing product. It’s ok that they bring a presentation.

Yet, we’ve all seen enough of those.

It’s really the same story. Every time. Again and again. And again. And again. And again.

Really. We’ve seen them all.

That’s why our habit has become to tune out of a sales presentation as soon as possible. Wake me up before you go.

If you want to break that habit of tuning out of a presentation, you’ll need to do things differently.

Spare us the boring parts. Spare us the parts that just put praise on you. Speak about the things that matter to us. Talk not to us but with us. Let’s have a conversation. One that’s meaningful. For us. Not just desirable for you.

That’s why the posture of the servant speaker is being embraced by more and more people. These people understand that we are tired of speakers who waste everyone’s time with boring presentations. We’ve had enough of disrespectful speakers who don’t take the time to prepare well. We’re done with selfish speakers who just read off their generic marketing script.

Long-lasting relationships are built on respect, generosity, and personal exchanges. Value your audience’s time and they will treat you accordingly.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz

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