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Fighting the Curse of Knowledge: Storytelling for Speeches Part II
Campus – Storytelling Workshops Tools 23 August 2018

Fighting the Curse of Knowledge: Storytelling for Speeches Part II

Just like a good book or an exciting film, a speech should inspire, engage and, above all, be remembered. Speakers are supported in this mission by classic storytelling theory. In our new series about Storytelling for Speeches, we show how every speaker can become a real master storyteller. In Part II, we present the winning formula for good stories on stage.

Eine Collage aus Zettel bzw. aufgeschlagenen BuchseitenSource: unsplash/Patrick Tomasson

Once your own mentor role has been found and the topic has been set, speakers naturally also have to prepare the content in such a way that the audience not only endures the presentation, but follows it with excitement. A little fairy dust for the presentation is a must, but the narrative style must also be right. In the process, speakers face a powerful opponent: The curse of knowledge always hovers over our heads and sometimes makes it impossible for listeners to follow what is being said. Ironically, the origin of this nasty villain lies in the expertise of the speaker himself. Because: The more knowledge someone has in a field, the greater the difference to the level of knowledge of his audience and the more difficult it is for them to follow the content. In order to catch up with the audience, it is therefore first necessary to take off one’s own blinkers and detach oneself from one’s background knowledge.

The formula for success against the curse of knowledge

Of course, the master storytellers are not alone in this. The saving elixir for overcoming the millennia-old curse literally provides a formula for success! The six letters of the so-called SUCCESs formula create the perfect mnemonic to make even complex speeches tangible and understandable with just a few tricks.

  • Simple – Say it simple.
  • Unexpected – Astonish with the unexpected.
  • Concrete – Be concrete.
  • Credible – Be credible.
  • Emotional – Aim for the emotions.
  • Story – Tell stories.

SIMPLE – Say it simple.

Of course, simple does not mean that you suddenly get to the level of a toddler. Rather, it is important to always formulate the core of an idea. Linguistic techniques to make the message stick include metaphors and analogies. By referring to the things we already know, we can categorise new concepts and ideas faster and better.

A nice example of the curse of knowledge is provided by the Wikipedia description for pomelo: “Pomelo is the trade name for several cultivated varieties of citrus fruits whose grapefruit heritage is greater than that of the grapefruit. The pomelo resembles the grapefruit in its general characteristics. The fruits are round to pear-shaped, weigh 500 to 2000g with a diameter of 15 to 25cm. Under the whitish-yellow to greenish surface of the pomelo follows a relatively thick white, spongy layer. The flesh is pale yellow to pink, firm in consistency and has a faint sour-sweet, sometimes slightly bitter refreshing taste.”

aufgeschnittene GrapefruitSource: unsplash/Charles Deluvio

Quite a chunk and somehow we are also more confused than informed after reading it. How about this description instead? “The pomelo is a slightly larger grapefruit with a thicker skin.” With this simple comparison, one can quickly deduce from what is known and even imagine the taste.

UNEXPECTED – Astonish with the unexpected.

This is all about holding and rewarding the audience’s attention through the unexpected. Why not present another little anecdote in the middle of the presentation or end with a completely unexpected twist that will have listeners leaving the room in awe?

CONCRETE – Be concrete. 

A lot of informations become much more exciting when it is not just put out there, but backed up with tangible additional facts. A nice example is the following sentence: “A medium-sized bag of popcorn at the cinema contains 20g of fat.” Fair enough. But it is not immediately clear to us whether this is a lot or a little, whether this makes popcorn healthy or not. But what if we get a little more information: “A medium-sized bag of popcorn at the cinema contains more fat than a breakfast of bacon and eggs, a Big Mac and fries and a steak dinner – combined.” Well, in the mood for your next movie night already?

CREDIBLE – Be credible.

After you have gotten the attention of the audience and made your message memorable, it is now a matter of appearing credible to the audience. Numbers, for example, help here. But be careful, these should also be presented in a tangible and exciting way.

A good example is provided by the Energy Competence Centre for Municipal Climate Protection. Using very tangible figures, they show how much energy one kilowatt hour of electricity actually corresponds to. Or did you already know how many cups of coffee you can make with it?

Source: Youtube/Energiekompetenz BW

EMOTIONAL – Aim for the emotions.

Emotional communication does not mean making the audience cry. The goal is primarily to get the audience to engage with what is being said in the first place. However, in order to put on the empathy hat, the analytical hat must first be taken off. The story of a concrete, personal example usually works better than faceless statistics.

But embedding numbers in a larger context can also be made very emotional. Google is probably the absolute leader in this discipline. Annually, seemingly dry most searched terms and phrases are transformed into fireworks of emotions here, making viewers think (and sob).

Source: Youtube

STORY – Telling your own story. 

Last but not least, a tip: Instead of producing fictional stories, speakers are best off using very personal stories and anecdotes to enliven their talk. True to the motto: “Everyone has a story to tell!”, suitable stories can be found for every topic, making the subject easier to understand and the speaker more approachable. It just takes a little courage to look for them!

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