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Storytelling for Leaders: Emotion

This lesson is a part of an audio course Storytelling for Leaders by Paul Andrew Smith

Much of the research in cognitive science in the last few decades shows that human beings often make subconscious, emotional decisions in one place in the brain, and then justify those decisions more logically and rationally in another place in the brain.

So, while it may sound counter-intuitive, we need emotions to make good decisions. In fact, we have a word for people who don’t have a proper emotional assessment of their decisions and behavior, right? We call them sociopaths. Emotions are a valid and necessary part of human decision-making. And to influence those decisions, you need to speak to both parts of the brain. And stories are exceptionally well-suited to reach people emotionally.

In fact, one of my favorite definitions of the word “story” is by novelist E.M. Forster. He said that a story was nothing more than a fact plus an emotion. And he gave a brilliantly simple example. He said, “If I were to tell you, the king died, and then the queen died, well that wouldn’t be a story, would it? But if I told you, the king died, and then the queen died of grief now that is a story!”

And, why is it a story? Because with those two little words of grief, you can immediately imagine what must have happened. Oh, the queen must have so loved the king that when he died, she stopped eating and just withered away. Or maybe, maybe she was so distraught that she took her own life! All of those stories come to mind just because of the last two words, “of grief.” The emotion turned the fact into a story.

In fact, let me give you a more relevant example. One of the people I interviewed for my research was DeeAnn Marshall. She’s the chief development officer of Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. That means she’s the chief fundraiser. So, she attends a lot of expensive banquets and tells lots of stories about kids getting miraculously cured at Children’s Hospital and people write big checks. But one of the stories she tells is very different from the rest. Because it’s a story about her.

She says that one day she was walking through the lobby of the hospital. And she happens to look out the windows into the parking lot and see a white minivan pull up into one of the front parking spaces. A woman gets out of the driver’s side of the car, walks around to the back of the minivan and stops, in what was probably a strategically chosen location. The look on her face goes from normal to abject anguish. She bends over at the waist, and she bursts into tears! Just balling her eyes out right there at the back of the minivan.

Now, DeeAnn is in the lobby, watching this happen, and wondering what to do about it. Should she rush out and comfort this woman? Or perhaps just give this cathartic moment in dignity all alone? Well, eventually, of course, the woman stands up, straightens her blouse, wipes off her face, puts on a happier face, continues around the other side of the minivan where she opens the door, gets out her little baby daughter, puts her into a stroller, and pushes it into the lobby of Children’s Hospital.

And that’s where DeeAnn’s story ends. And if you think about it as a story about that woman and her daughter, it’s a terribly unfinished story. Right? We know the answers to very few of the 8 questions. We don’t know who the woman is, or her daughter. We don’t know what was wrong with the little girl. We don’t know if she lived or died. We know little at all.

But it’s not a story about that woman and her daughter. It's a story about DeeAnn Marshall, standing in the lobby, watching all of this happen, and struggling with what to do about it. And so, DeeAnn can finish her story by saying, “As a mom, I really resonated with what must have been going on out there. That woman was obviously distraught about whatever was wrong with her sick child. And she needed that moment—that cathartic moment—to just let out all those emotions without letting her daughter see how frightened she was.”

She concludes her story by telling her audience, I hope that none of you ever find yourself bent over the back of a minivan, sobbing your eyes out over a sick child. But if you do... you’re going to want to be in my parking lot. Where we have all of the doctors and nurses and technology precisely for children like that.

And that’s when the checkbooks come out.

Now, I tell you that story, not to get you to give money to Children’s hospital. Although, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind. I tell you that story to show you the role that emotion played in that story. Just imagine if all of the details about that story were the same, except for one. DeeAnn Marshall walks through the lobby of Children’s Hospital, and sees a while minivan pull into the parking lot. A woman gets out, walks around to the back of the van, bends over at the waist, and… sneezes! Instead of crying, she sneezes… No story. Right? Boring, boring, boring, boring. The emotion turned all of those facts into an interesting story. So, emotion is a critical component of any story. Does it need to be a tearjerker, like that? Of course not. There are lots of emotions, and most of them aren’t sad. But you need something for your audience to feel.

So, here are four techniques I’d like to share to help bring out the emotional component in your storytelling.

The first is just called “Tell me.” Just name the emotion your characters are experiencing so that your listener can be aware of it. Just saying “I was shocked” or “He was scared out of his wits” or “She was so excited” is the simplest method. Now, that’s a good start, But you can do better.

Technique 2, is called “Show me.” Show your audience how your characters feel by describing the physical manifestations of the emotion on the character. So, instead of saying “She was angry,” say, “She started yelling.” People yell when they’re angry. Or, instead of saying, “He was sad,” say, “He started crying.” People cry when they’re sad. Describe what your character did and let the audience infer the emotion. That turns out to be an even more powerful way to do it.

Technique 3, is to avoid the Stormtrooper Effect. And, I’ll need to explain that. You might have noticed that when you watch most movies and people get shot and killed, you’re either happy or sad, depending on who the character is. But in most of the Star Wars movies, most people have no emotional reaction to a StormTrooper getting killed at all. They’re not happy and they’re not sad. Why? Because those StormTroopers are nameless, faceless, clones. Right? You don’t know anything about them. And, it turns out, it’s impossible for human beings to care about someone or something they know nothing about. So, let your audience get to know your characters before something emotional happens to them.

For example, if you start out your story like this, “There was this guy I used to work with who got fired…” nobody will care. But instead, if you started out like this, “There was this guy named Matt I used to work within California. He was my favorite coworker. He used to get to work before everyone else and turn on the coffee. He’d always cover for me when I needed to take a day off. And he’d been there longer than anyone else, so if I ever got stuck and didn’t know what to do, I could always ask him so I didn’t have to look dumb in front of the boss. Well, when I got to work this morning, I found out he’d gotten fired.” See. Now you care. And you care because you know Matt and you like him. And it only took a few sentences.

Okay, the final technique is Dialogue. Instead of you telling the audience what the characters feel, let them hear that directly, even if it’s words your characters are thinking without saying out loud.

For example, instead of telling the audience that the hero was feeling exhausted and sleepy before her big presentation, you could share her inner thoughts this way: she leaned into the microphone and said, “I’m really excited to be here with you today.” But inside, she was thinking, “Oh my God, I’m going to fall asleep in the middle of the next sentence.”

Find the moments in your story that have the highest potential for emotion, and use one or more of these techniques. Your stories will be much more engaging, memorable, and effective.

Okay, next up, we’ll be talking about the element of surprise. Why it works and how to create it in your stories.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith