Expect the unexpected

Keith January 21st, 2010

I was tweeting from a presentation on storytelling on Tuesday.  Shawn Callahan of Anecdote led the session, and listed the key elements of an effective story:

  • Simple – It doesn’t have to be sophisticated – you hear it once and you get it.
  • Unexpected – It throws you a curve ball that you weren’t expecting.
  • Concrete – It has names and actual events.
  • Credible – It sound real.
  • Emotional – It gets you in the gut – impactful stories evoke at least one strong emotion.
  • Transport – It transports you to where the story took place - you can feel the experience.
  • Human – It happens with real people.

I have quoted Charles Savage here before: “Innovation is like humour – it occurs at the intersection of the expected and the unexpected.”  The same principle applies to storytelling. 

One fantastic little story I heard a while ago that embodies these principles is a vignette in Bill Bryson’s book In a Sunburned Country:

In the 1950s a friend of Catherine’s moved with her young family into a house next door to a vacant lot. One day a construction crew turned up to build a house on the lot. Catherine’s friend had a four-year-old daughter who naturally took an interest in all the activity going on next door. 

She hung around on the margins and eventually the construction workers adopted her as a kind of mascot. They chatted to her and gave her little jobs to do and at the end of the week presented her with a little pay packet containing a shiny new half crown. 

She took this home to her mother, who made all the appropriate cooings of admiration and suggested that they take it to the bank next morning to deposit it in her account. 

When they went to the bank, the teller was equally impressed and asked the little girl how she had come by her own pay packet. 

‘I’ve been building a house this week,’ she replied proudly. 

‘Goodness!’ said the teller. ‘And will you be building a house next week too?’ 

The little girl answered: ‘I will; if we ever get the f***ing bricks.’

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