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Storytelling for Leaders: Surprise

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

It’s probably no surprise to you that the element of surprise is an important component of a well-told story. We all love the surprise ending in a movie or a mystery novel. But there’s actually a more practical reason to include something unexpected in your business stories: it actually makes them more effective. And the specific role it plays is different depending on where in the story you put them.

A surprise at the beginning of a story gets your audience to pay attention.

But a surprise at the end of the story serves a different—and even more important—purpose: to help your audience remember the lesson they learned.

Let me explain. It turns out, human memories aren’t formed instantly in the brain like a digital photograph. They form over a period of time shortly after the event happens, more like old-fashioned film photos when they’re developed in a dark room. And psychologists call that the “memory consolidation process.” And it can take anywhere from a few seconds, to a few minutes, to a few hours to complete.

And if you’ve ever known someone who was in an accident and got a concussion, you’ve probably seen this process play out. Or… not play out actually. It’s not uncommon for people who get a concussion from an accident to not even remember the accident. And the reason is that the memory of that car or that linebacker, or whatever, coming at them, was still in the memory consolidation process when the impact happened. And it interrupted it so that it never finished. And that’s why the memory was lost.

But, as it turns out, certain chemicals, like caffeine, can enhance the memory consolidation process—they make it faster and more effective. Well, another chemical that has a similar effect is adrenaline. The kind of adrenaline that gets released in your system when you get frightened or surprised. So, that surprise at the end of your story literally makes the ending of the story (where the lesson is) more memorable.

Okay, but what if your story doesn’t have anything surprising in it, can you just skip that step and move on? Well, I suppose, if you’re happy with a mediocre story. But, the good news is, just like there are techniques to bring out the emotion in your stories, there are techniques you can use to create a surprise at the beginning or end even when they don’t naturally exist in your story that way.

For example, to create a surprise at the beginning of your story, simply start with the most unexpected thing that happens in the story, and then flashback to the beginning of the story and continue as usual. Just like they do in Hollywood.

More important, though, is to know how to create a surprise at the end. And there’s a simple technique to do that, and you can apply it to just about any story. Take something that’s important from the beginning of the story, and don’t give it to your audience until the end of the story. Presto! Surprise ending. Here’s an example…

One evening, a nine-year-old boy named James was in the kitchen with his mother’s sister, who was having a cup of tea. Well, while auntie was enjoying her tea, James was standing at the stove watching the tea kettle boil. And he was just fascinated with it. He was watching the jet of steam coming out of the kettle. And he had a spoon that he held up into the jet of steam, and watched as drops of water condensed on the spoon and ran down the handle, and dripped into a cup he had sitting there. He just watched this process, over and over and over again—just fascinated with it.

Well, eventually, his aunt just barked at him, she said, “James, go read a book, or do your homework, go ride your bike! Aren’t you ashamed of wasting your time like this?”

Well, fortunately, young James was undaunted by her admonishment. Because, 20 years later, at the age of 29, and in the year 1765, James Watt reinvented the steam engine, ushering in the Industrial Revolution that we all benefit from today, and all based on the fascination with steam he developed at the age of nine in the kitchen.

Now, when I first read that story, it was in a book titled James Watt, written by Andrew Carnegie in 1905. So, to me, it was of course no surprise that the story in chapter 1 about nine-year-old James was about the inventor of the steam engine. The entire book was about James Watt. But to you, it probably was a surprise. And why? Because I didn’t tell you his last name. I simply moved something important from the beginning of the story (his last name) to the end of the story. Presto! Surprise ending. It’s that simple. And you can do it with almost any story.

Okay, in the next lesson, we’ll talk about the level of detail you should go into in your stories.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith