Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: To Have Them At Hello, Start With A Story

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a weekly feature of this blog that presents fail-safe ways to improve your communication.  The subject today is how to use illustrations and metaphors for better audience engagement.  Read on to discover two quick structural devices you can employ in your opening paragraph to ensure that your target audience stays tuned.

There was a time when you could just start talking and people would start listening.  This is still the tradition at the famed Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, London.  At that little spot in the U.K., anyone can stand up, start giving a speech on any topic, and attract a gaggle of listeners -- at least, for a couple of minutes.  But if the orator is only  ordinary, the paused pedestrians are soon in motion again, drifting down the sidewalk in search of a more riveting show.

And so it goes in all messaging.  First you need to get your readers'/listeners'/viewers' attention.  But you're not done there.  It's not enough to just hook them.  You have to keep them on the line.   (A little fishing metaphor, there -- more about metaphors later.)  And unless you're at Speaker's Corner, you have mere seconds to prevent your audience from evaporating.

In all my readings and rambles, it seems as though I'm always noticing the detachment point in messaging -- the moment at which the teller loses the tellee.  Often I see that it's a matter of disincentivization.  (No, that's not a word found in today's dictionary, but it will be in the dictionary of tomorrow,  because we writers will have more and more reasons to worry about it.)

Readers don't know where you're going with what you're saying, but if it sounds like it might be boring, they won't stick around long enough to find out.  So capturing their imagination in your first few sentences is key.

You DON'T have them at hello.  You need to give them reasons to stay.  One way to prevent attention drift is to add a sense of drama to your messaging right away.  Set up a story for your listeners, and you set up anticipation.  If they get an inkling of what to expect, they will be more likely to stick around -- if only to keep score and see if you stick to your game plan.  Keep score -- hey that's a bit of a sports metaphor, isn't it?  Since metaphors keep popping up here, let's talk about them first.

1.  Start with a metaphor.  Relate your topic to an easily-understandable situation, ideally one that has a compelling emotional ring to it.  The clearer the image, and the simpler your comparison, the better you will succeed.  When it comes to emotional engagement, the right metaphor succeeds like nothing else.

This was a device famously used over and over again by one of  history's all-time most successful communicators.  It would be an understatement to call Jesus Christ one of my communications superheroes, but regardless of your view of his life and claims in general, you have to admit the guy was one astounding speaker.  And when he had an abstract concept to illustrate, he used a familiar reference point as an illustration.

One of my favorite instances of this is when he starts one speech by talking about a despicable sheep stealer.  This is a big attention-getter for his straitlaced rural audience, and it has an emotional impact -- their righteous indignation gets in gear right away.    Jesus then contrasts that picture with the picture of a dedicated shepherd who protects the flock from thieves, at any cost.  Again, this is an attention-capturing bit of monologue for his audience.  No one is drifting away at this point, and inwardly there's probably a lot of self-comparison going on as they ask themselves, "Would I have the guts to confront sheep thieves?  How would I rate my own dedication to my job?"  

Jesus then ties the ribbon around the story as he explains simply, "I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep." The crowd is electrified -- and not all in a good way, by the way -- but the point is, Jesus has their attention up to the end.  (Read and admire the whole discourse, found in the book of John, chapter 10, by clicking here.)

There are plenty of  more contemporary examples of metaphors all around you.  Campaign stump speeches are full of them.  That's because metaphors are a prime means of political finger-pointing.  Campaign staffers live to run out and empty store shelves of Etch-A-Sketches and flip flops that they can wave at the cameras when a sound bite suddenly turns them into symbols.  

The power of a metaphor goes further than that.  Just a few days ago, President Obama spoke about the bad economy, likening it to someone ordering a big steak dinner and then leaving the next person with the tab.  Now there's a  Facebook page called "Don't Put It On Our Tab" that invites its viewers to  "Click LIKE if you are ready for fiscally conservative leadership in the White House."  

Expect many more metaphors of this type as presidential campaign rhetoric heats up.  Anyone in the mood for outrage?  We'll get plenty of that in the months to come, with deliberately-chosen, finely-tuned metaphors serving as catalysts.

But back to you, and your audience.  Starting your message with a metaphor is a great way to pull people in, whatever emotion you're trying to tap.  The more abstract your material, the more a metaphor will juice it up.  If the politicos can use one to set fire to the theme of fiscal responsibility, think how you can apply one to heat up  your own subject matter.

On the other hand, if a metaphor is just not feeling right in your case, here's an alternate way to engage the crowd with your opening sentence:

2.  Start with an example.  Tell your audience about a real-life situation that illustrates the point you want to make.  In most cases, you will already have heard about an event or a story that pertains to your subject.  Simply retell it.  But make sure it's one that has some drama attached.  

To access the full dramatic power of storytelling, you usually want your opening story to be a tale about what when wrong.  But it can also be about something that went right.  Or (and this is my personal favorite!) it can be about a crisis situation that seemed to be headed for certain disaster....  

Then, you stop telling it and leave it dangling as a cliffhanger as you launch into the body of your message.

Nice!  You've got them now!

If your example is captivating enough, it can set the tone for the rest of your message.  It becomes the "hook" in your song (click here to see last Friday's post that relates speech writing to songwriting.)

Using real examples has the benefit of conveying expertise.  If you  fire off a couple of stories about your topic, right at the start, you establish your credibility.  This is especially true if you can link them to your own observations or professional activity.

Look back at how I started this post: the cute little story about Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, right?  And remember how I interjected my own presence into the narrative a couple of paragraphs later?  "In all my readings and rambles..."

And look who's still reading now.  Yup -- consider yourself hooked, my friend.

I have one stern warning about using real-life situations in your messaging.  Be careful about confidentiality.  If a metaphor is like a feature film, an example is like a documentary.  You may need to edit your narrative carefully to keep those involved safe from anger or shame (and to keep yourself safe from a defamation of character lawsuit).  Like the digitally blurred-out faces in reality TV shows such as C.O.P.S., discreetly omitted details, generic descriptions, and vague pronouns can be used to mask your protagonists' identity.  Whether they function as the good guys or the bad guys, reveal the actual names of your story characters only if you get their permission first, preferably in written format.  (This applies to audio recordings and roll-in video as well.  Click here to find some Media Release Forms that you might want to use to document permission.)

And with that comment, I will end this piece by encouraging us all as communicators to deal respectfully and honestly with our audiences, especially when it comes to using metaphors, illustrations, examples, or any other devices to grab their attention.  Let's make sure that when we hook them at Hello, we go on to give them our best offering.  Otherwise, their Goodbye might be for good!

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