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.)

The World Builder’s Disease

Did you cry when Elliott had to say goodbye to E.T.?

Millions of viewers did. Steven Spielberg told E.T. so brilliantly that they were completely immersed in the story. The main characters felt so close that they feel what the characters felt. In that final scene, the viewers became part of that imagined world.

Sci-fi author Ansen Dibell describes this effect in her great author’s guide “Plot”:

Although a story is of course nothing from first to last but an author’s idea anyway, we forget that while we’re reading. We treat the story as real, the characters as people we care and are concerned about. We imagine our way into it and don’t want to be reminded it’s an elaborate lie, a made thing, a puppet show in which some author is yanking the strings.

The fantasy of an author that takes us along emotionally the way E.T. did, for example, is actually a lot of work. A good story is so good because the author has built a whole world mentally, because he has carefully developed the characters with their desires and goals. A good author is actually a world builder; first in his head, then – via the story – in our heads. The more coherently the world is built, the more convincing it seems.

But there is also a dark side to the skill of world building. It becomes visible when the author falls in love with his world a little too much and wants to explain every tiny detail.

Imagine Spielberg moving into that dark side: The movie would have started by explaining in great detail the anatomy of the alien. Maybe it would have continued with a technical description of their spaceships. Sounds boring? It almost certainly is.

Ansen Dibell calls this the World Builder’s Disease. When it infects authors, they become obsessed by their own worlds. The most visible symptom is that they annoy their readers with never-ending descriptions of their imagined world:

To the degree that we’re conscious of the puppeteer, that awareness keeps us from holding on to our conviction that words on a page can be worth our tears, our laughter, or our love.

Now, how much in love are you with the world you have created with your product? Many communicators fall prey to the World Builder’s Disease. They are stuck in describing the world as opposed to letting us immerse in the world. Letting us feel how this product will improve our lives.

Let us in into your world. But make us fall in love with it first before you tell us all the boring details. Make sure that we want to know the details because your story resonates deeply. The right time to tell us the details is when we ask for them.

Juggling with thoughts

Almost anyone can juggle two balls. Many can do three. Four is rather difficult. More is impossible for most.

Juggling thoughts by keeping several things in mind at the same time is quite similar … Two? That’s easy. Three? Still easy. Four is more difficult, and then it quickly gets really difficult. The more complex the things you have to keep in mind, the more difficult it is to keep multiple things in your mind.

Of course, that’s also true for your audience. If we juggle too many balls in a speech, it will be difficult for our audience to keep track. Sooner or later they will drop a ball … and while they’re still busy picking it up again, the next thought balls are already falling to the floor.

Unfortunately, most topics – especially those worthy of being the subject of a presentation – are rather complex. Usually, three balls just won’t get the job done.

Fortunately, though, thoughts have a property that physical balls don’t have. Thoughts can combine to form larger thoughts. Thoughts can trigger other thoughts.

Apples, pears, and bananas become fruit. Fruits, vegetables and grains become vegetarian food. Vegetarian diet has effects that you first illustrate through a story and then abstract to derive a specific dietary recommendation.

Yet, at any given time, we kept a maximum of four thoughts in the air so that everyone could follow along effortlessly.

Complex in nature, yet simple in narrative.

With a clear story and a great structure, we can get extremely complex things into the minds of the audience. We just have to make sure to build the complexity step-by-step.

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.

A million ways to tell our story

Today, we’ve got a million ways to tell our story. We can tell it on video, audio, or write it down. We can publish it on YouTube, LinkedIn, or Instagram. We can record podcasts or chat live on Clubhouse. We can tweet with 240 characters or write long-from blog posts. We can call on the phone, meet in person or give a speech.

Yet, no matter how we choose to tell our story, one thing always comes first: Making a connection with our audience.

This is not about technology, nor about the format. It’s about empathy, clarity, and caring for our cause. It’s about understanding what matters to our audience and finding the words that make them see.

The beauty of it is this: When we get this right, our story becomes independent of the platform, the format, and the technology. When we get the story right, we’ll be able to tell it on any platform, using the format that fits us best with the technology that we have.

Living a life worth telling

“Great stories happen to people who tell them.” – Ira Glass

Yeah, you might not have climbed the Mount Everest. And you might not have travelled 50 countries in 100 days.

But almost certainly you changed someone’s life. Or even just your own.

Let us hear how it happened. Tell us what changed for you. And why?

That’s really all it takes to tell a great story. It’s just not true that we’ve got to wait for something spectacular to happen to us before we can tell a great story. Quite the opposite. It’s that we need to open our eyes so that we can see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

The biggest difference between great storytellers and those who think they have no story to tell is not that the former have a more spectacular life. Sure, some do, but most don’t. It’s that the former just tell us about the things they see when they open their eyes while others keep their mouth shut … unsure whether what they see would be worth telling others about.

You know what? If you don’t tell us about it, we won’t know.

All the stories that have never been told are all the stories that will never impact anyone’s life.

It’s best to start right away. Share with us something that happened to you yesterday.

We need a hero but it’s not you

… and that’s good news!

Here’s why: Trying to play the hero is one of the major causes why people feel uncomfortable on a stage (and in front of a camera).

When people try to give the impression of being the hero, they tend to be focussed on themselves. What’s worse, it exposes them to the judgement of their audience: “Will I live up to their standard?” It puts a weight on every single action and every single word. All eyes are on them.

The sad part is that that’s not even what the audience came for. They are not looking for a hero because they already got one: themselves. Every single person in the audience cares much more about themselves and their own problems than they do for the speaker and her hero problem.

At the same time, that’s an easy solution for a speaker’s hero problem: Step down from the podium of the hero and grant it to your audience. It makes your life much easier because if you show up as the guide who lights their audience a path, you’re in a completely different situation. Now, your job isn’t to make yourself shine in the brightest light. To be the perfect star of the show.

Your job as a guide is to offer your help, your expertise, your opinion, …

By giving your speech you’re giving your audience a gift. One that they are free to take to solve their hero problem.

If you’re doing this from a posture of generosity (rather than as a trick to get the deal), it’s highly unlikely that they will be harsh to you. Generosity is seldom the source of frustration for our audience. What a difference to the people who try to steal the role of the hero from their audience …

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?

Thou shalt not bore thy audience

You shouldn’t. But as a goal, that’s unambitious. And misleading.

Not being boring is relatively easy (though not necessarily cheap).

Make a speech during a rollercoaster ride and it won’t be boring.

Only that it’s not the point.

The point is to change minds. And have your message stick rather than the rollercoaster ride.

When we hear a speech that’s super exciting, it’s tempting to think that this is because of some talent of the communicator to make it exciting, or because the marketing was so great.

What’s easily overlooked is that it’s the other way around. Stories that touch us deeply are never boring – while stories that aren’t boring can still leave us largely unaffected. A story that challenges my thinking can’t be boring – while stories that aren’t boring can still be irrelevant.

Great communicators start with relevance. That’s what creates resonance. And when something resonates it’s not boring.

Not being boring is a consequence rather than a prerequisite of telling a meaningful story. (And telling it on a rollercoaster will only make it more exciting … if that’s your thing.)

Just sayin’

If you could just let go of the judgement of others and tell your story just like you feel it, what would you say?

If you could just say what you mean without worrying whether that sounds cool or clever, what would you say?

If you could just skip the superficial and get right to the heart of the matter, what would you say?

Why don’t you?

Spread the Word

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz

GET

Work with me 1:1

Create messages that resonate so strongly that it leads to change!
Focus your message to what matters most to your customers and communicate it with clarity

SEARCH THE SITE

Yes, I love talking to you. Call me at +49.2241.8997777
Or reach out at michael@michaelgerharz.com