Pretty Woman and reality
People like to see and hear stories, especially those that are gripping or those that simply allow the audience to dream. A user manual does not fulfill either of these conditions and by its nature it really shouldnít. Even so, why not consider explaining technology with the help of a narrative?
Publishing an article on the art of "storytelling" in a German magazine for technical communication is just as daring as selling sand to a desert state. However, as I know a colleague who has at least achieved the latter, I responded positively to the request of editor-in-chief Gregor Schšfer. If the grains of sand are a trifle small for certain applications, then it becomes necessary to bring in sand from abroad! And when messages from the technical world do not have the desired effect on the audience, then perhaps a trip into the land of stories will help. Well, in any case it canít cause major damage.
Before I get started, I would like to apologize to the male readers for plaguing them with a "chick flick" like "Pretty Woman". However, as surveys show, this Hollywood fairy tale has been able to leave lasting impressions in the minds of many men as well. I therefore ask you the following questions, respected readers: What do you remember from the very first scene? That is, how does the film begin? And what flickers on the screen before the credits and the end of the story? If you belong to the minority of those who have not yet watched "Pretty Woman", I recommend that you correct the lapse at some point in time. Although the 1990 blockbuster is a little long in the tooth, it remains a textbook example of storytelling.
Only the story counts
If you think that the film begins with Richard Gere, alias Edward Lewis, driving along the street in his attorneyís Lotus, you are wrong. If you think it begins with a scene of Julia Roberts, alias Vivian Ward, you are equally wrong. The film actually begins in a beautiful villa, where we observe a man performing a magic trick for some women and saying: "Ladies! No matter what they say, it is all about money." Yes, one of the most popular films of the last few decades begins with this bleak contention. And if you have forgotten this scene, you are not alone. Even those who have watched it a number of times are firmly convinced that their favorite film has a more poetic prelude.
But what can I say: People are strange, even those that predominantly live in a technically inclined world. People donít see reality but arrange the stories so that they are in harmony. That is also the reason why they blend out the last scene. This does not show Julia Roberts and Richard Gere on the fire escape, but a nobody hurrying through the street saying: "Welcome to Hollywood! What do we dream of? Everyone comes by sometime or the other. This is Hollywood, the land of dreams. Some dreams come true and some donít."
So? What do we learn from this? Nothing more and nothing less than the most important message of storytelling: Donít talk reality to your audience, but tell them stories that they can and want to believe in.
Logical thinking determines little
Since this advice is likely to irritate scientists and the technically inclined as well as journalists alike, a small trip to the playing field of neuroscientists is necessary. But, thanks to the specified word count, I shall spare you greatly from technical vocabulary, and prefer to quote the doyen Goethe, as the multitalented German has already made the significant point almost 200 years back, when he gave the devil Mephisto the following words: "You believe you are pushing, whereas you are being pushed." Goethe anticipated what neuroscientists are proving today with their high tech devices: Humans are not rational beings. Their decisions are not made predominantly by reason but by areas of the brain working unconsciously. And they donít really like facts much, rather their processing is left to the ratio, to legitimize our selected behavioral patterns.
But how do you bring this awareness to people whose minds pursue technology and who are often convinced that logical thinking rules the world? This is not easy when one thinks that learning through insight is grossly overestimated. Not many opportunities remain. Because, stupidly, the brain functions by the motto: Change only when necessary. And since this principle has already passed the practical test two million years back, evolution will hardly rattle it.
When "persuasion" doesnít achieve much, the only remaining choice is between reward and punishment. Or between enticement and psychological distress. Significantly, both methods are linked to strong emotions, which is already a good prerequisite to reach the areas of the brain working unconsciously. Naturally, enticement is a lot more elegant than making threatening gestures. But distress can increase the readiness to be enticed. When I as an adolescent experience that my rivals are more successful with girls due to their stories, I will perhaps try this trick as well. At least the risk is contained within manageable limits.
The conflict with the brain
The psychological distress that educational institutions are practicing could be effective too. But a glimpse at the common German educational materials is not very promising. The mere reference that humans also behave emotionally is already considered to be revolutionary. "Humans also behave rationally" Ė would be one step closer to the truth. This is not just a word play, but a fundamental difference in the perspective of real existing people. If you cannot classify the success of "Pretty Woman" you will struggle to earn applause from the audience for your messages. And anyone who does not applaud, whether metaphorically or by actual clapping, has been left emotionally untouched.
Of course, you donít have to wrap the latest technical features of a proven product into a fairy tale. Obviously, no one expects you to deliver the customer documentation as a thrilling soap opera. But whenever you want to influence the choices of your audience, storytelling should be considered. Because, simply stating the true balance of forces in a human brain is no longer enough to stay on top of modern communication strategies. Not at all, when the competition does a better job.
But what is better? Dealing more closely with the topic "Storytelling" could be a beginning. And this initially means changing oneís perspective and way of thinking, which is much more than transforming a message into an adventure story. Anyone using storytelling as a communication tool familiarizes himself with the functioning of the human brain. He questions how our neural network perceives billions of information units, assigns them to the various areas of the brain, weighs, saves and recalls them. And naturally he assumes that these processes run the same way in the heads of technically inclined people as they do for Fred Feuerstein & Co.
Probable rather than true
Once these mental preparations have been made, a forward-thinking communication strategist takes care of the rules transcending time and regions, which make every good story. And because he has learnt that marketing is about influencing human behavior of making choices, and not about revising the sermon on the mountain, he does not confuse "good" with "real", "pedagogically valuable", "politically correct" or "morally sound". In other words: A story is a tool like a hammer. And only the question of which nail will be hit with it should be answered on the moral-ethical level.
To draw an interim bottom line: Donít narrate reality to your audience, but tell them stories that they can and want to believe in. Because reality is a concept of awareness, whereas the unconscious simply calculates probabilities, even those of whether or not it is useful to consider some information. And since processing complex information in the form of stories is the evolutionary stroke of genius, we should deal with what makes a good story.
The elements mentioned below are found in every story, which reaches the majority of the selected audience. And because we may be satisfied when more than half the audience pays attention to us, we can handle it better when not everyone likes our stories. It is obvious that a lot must be cut down and presented in a eye-catching manner in such an article. The presented process is also just one of the many possible. After all, it is simply about awakening your interest in a long-established perspective that is everything other than a passing trend.
When you are tasked with introducing a new technical product, you could easily think that product XY is the topic. Although this is not false, it only half the truth from the storytelling perspective. A good storyteller always looks for a topic that transcends time. Technology as well as a specific product do not belong to it. Only topics dealing with general human behavioral patterns, which are often existential, can be denoted as transcending time and therefore as native or meta topics. Therefore, the variety of topics for stories is also not endless, but can be restricted to a manageable number.
The importance of such thematic brackets has been shown not just by scientific experiments but also by the selection processes for further tracking submitted film manuscripts. There is high probability of finding favor with the public, when it perceives such a so-called master plot. To make this search tastier for you, I shall provide you an overview of master plots with which I am working, but without further explanations (see Table 1).
Master plots for stories
Table 1, Source Werner T. Fuchs
"Whatís the story?" When your audience identifies the answer to this elementary question, you have already achieved one of the most important steps towards a good story. In practice, you will observe that usually several plots come into question. Your task will then be to decide on one master plot and to eventually relegate the exited candidates to the margin. Experience shows that the search for the "native topic" is always quick after initial difficulties, which is the case with any new method.
Childhood, puberty and first experiences
Sometime in the course of your work you must deal with the strength of the imprint of your communication, because there are stories which our autobiographical memory remembers better than others. And when we succeed in setting in motion associations with such imprinting stories, our own message is better perceived and stored.
Stories from childhood, puberty and first experiences remain the strongest in our autobiographical memory. If I remind the readers about the tent pole puzzle during their first camping trip, I have already tuned them in for my simple instructions for use of the product XY. But what about those who have never been camping, I hear you wonder. One of the peculiar features of the human brain is that it needs just a gentle nudge to turn a strangerís story into its own. Those abstaining from camping are also automatically reminded of a comparable experience.
Recalling memories from formative timeframes of the audience is perhaps the easiest option of giving more importance to a story. We should therefore absolutely use this opportunity. Particularly because it is so simple to achieve. The objection that the seniors of today did not have smartphones, search engines or navigation devices during their childhood is based on the same misunderstanding as the camping trip. Searching for stories from childhood, puberty or first experiences is not about finding congruent experiences. Rather it is necessary to consider which basic behavioral patterns and actions can be located in these timeframes. Technically it is merely the means to an end. And therefore, it is also not necessary to construct unbelievable stories. A single word is often enough to awaken submerged memories from the past.
Once again: Whether we give our attention to a story depends largely on how much it reminds us of experiences from our childhood, puberty or our first experiences. Which mental concepts do childrenís books, eating habits or school experiences convey? Which phrases of our parents do we link with reward or punishment? When did we start to like angular shapes? How did the prototypes of pleasant notes of perfumes emerge? And what did we experience in our first own apartment? The unconscious also evaluates signals by the criterion, whether they had a constituting effect in formative phases of life. Anyone knowing these codes or symbols includes them specifically in their communication.
Connecting the new to the familiar
When there is nothing new under the sun and all good stories have already been told, we should make use of these findings. The scriptwriters of Hollywood show us how easy it is. We must also thank people like Steven Spielberg for the fact that even the audience of technically oriented messages knows the core stories from the bible, Grimmís fairy tales or the Greek sagas. Even television formats such as GNTM, GZSZ etc. are good docking stations for own stories thanks to their coverage. Popular taste is more important than artistic value for storytelling. Therefore, it is better to follow the bestseller lists rather than secret tips. Such lists can be found in public periodicals, or of course, on the Internet.
Messages of very different types can dock on to a good docking station, as can be seen from an example from my personal collection of stories. When an Austrian student conducted a search engine search for my book "Tausend und eine Macht. Marketing und moderne Hirnforschung" and simply entered "1001 Macht" in the search engine, neither the author nor the title of the book appeared in first position. What did appear was the offer of a domina from Vienna. It did not just show the plump professional profile of the mistress, but also showed a profound understanding of storytelling. As the story of the product awakened suitable associations to already known stories, it addresses a larger audience and also receives greater credibility. Moreover, the famous oriental collection of stories "Arabian Nights (Thousand and One Nights)" stands not just for the power of eroticism but also for the necessity of narrating stories. Because the framework story makes it clear that we humans need stories to survive.
Title that entice and guide
"Wir sind Papst!" (We are the pope!) This legendary headline of the newspaper "Bild" on the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as pope was countered with "O Gott!" (Oh God) by the leftist TAZ. Finding a good title is not just half the work done, it also helps to check whether oneís story has been understood, because good titles are rather coincidental products if the core message is missing or lost to marginal plots. Since this article is not a crash course for writers, I shall leave it at that with respect to a gripping headline.
Heroes and villains
Once we accept the fact that every good story has a hero who is waylaid by a villain at some point, we will narrate the stories of our products, services and ideas differently. We just need to free ourselves from the idea that these roles can only be assumed by people. But this should be easy for us, when we think of all the advertising figures who wrote advertising stories. Or of comics and Walt Disney. And because every hero and villain has helpers, we can follow the rule that a good story has only one hero and one main foe.
Placing a hero in the heart of their story is particularly difficult for authors of technical articles or advertising messages. In scenarios where somehow everything is important, one quickly feels that it is not fair to highlight one aspect in particular. But the thing is, our unconscious longs for guidance and wants to know who takes up the fight against the dragon and solves the problem, even when our logic dictates that it is never just one who can triumph at the end. Nevertheless: Is it the beauty, speed, simplicity or the prize that befits the role of hero?
We must solve the same problem when searching for the antagonist, the adversary. Who usually stands in the way of buying a product, an idea or a service? Is it the acceptance in oneís own peer group, the handling or the compatibility? Or is it evil unknown words or scientific excursions? Let yourself be guided by Walt Disney and have no fear in naming the good and the evil. Your audience will thank you. Just donít invite your direct competitor up on stage. For one, because it does not reveal great self-confidence, and second because you are only doing your adversary a favor. Significantly, Steve Jobs never did it for Microsoft.
Backdrops and requisites
Do you reach for a pack of cold cuts with the label "90 percent fat free" or would you rather buy "Cold cuts with 10 percent fat"? Do you find the newsreader in a suit more reliable or the man in casuals? "What you see is all there is", said noble prize winner Daniel Kahneman and drew the conclusion that we are more likely to accept a statement when the areas of the brain working unconsciously are presented with appropriate images.
The importance of appropriate backdrops and requisites in technical communication is easy to view on YouTube, as more and more user manuals are being offered in video form to the delight of the less technically versed citizens of the world. However, even the most brilliant products can sometimes waft of boring school lessons, because the background awakens repressed memories or a coincidentally visible object leads into another story. But it is possible to create an atmosphere with carefully selected word backdrops even in text based communication, and give the core statement more weight.
Start and end
The energy saving mode of the human brain is also responsible for us giving particular attention at the start and end of a story. As the quick evaluation of a threat serves evolutionary objectives, we are more involved at the beginning of a story. And at the end, we obviously want to know whether or not our evaluation was correct. Primarily however, at the end, we want the cowboy to ride into the sunset, the princess to find her prince and the world to be better than what the media tells us every day. But we accept the decision of the storyteller to keep an open end as well.
We have learnt from Pretty Woman that we should not narrate reality to the audience. Rather, the audience wants to experience stories that it can and wants to believe in. But since the start and end of Pretty Woman were rather unsuccessful, we can perhaps learn something even more important from Pretty Woman: Everything need not be perfect for our message to be received.