How to tell a story

To hear and see the video testimonies of teachers who have doubled, see www.joshhuntnm.blogspot.com

Skilled communicators know that telling stories is one of the most effective ways to communicate. Story telling is modeled for us by the Master-Teacher and is widely used by effective communicators.

But, ever heard a story that didn't work? Ever heard a story that left you yawning and wondering when it would ever end? Ever heard a sermon and found yourself reading through the bulletin because you were not that engaged? Ever heard a lesson that found you continually checking your watch? (Is it stopped?) Ever hear a story that didn't work?

What makes a story work? What makes a story fall flat? How can stories be used to communicate truth effectively? And, how can we keep stories from being boring?

One of the best ways to answer this question is to look at movies. Movies tell a story. Good movies tell a story effectively. What does a good love story, a good action film, or a good comedy have in common with all other good love stories, action films or comedies? As far as that goes, what do these have in common with a good sporting event? How is it that we can sit through an exciting football game for three hours fully engaged and can't sit though church without looking at our watches?

Time out.

What are you feeling right now? Pause. Think about it. What is going on? Are you tempted to put down this article or do you want to keep reading? If I have done my job well you will want to keep reading. And you will want to keep reading for the same reason that you want to keep listening to a story told well, a movie done well, or an exciting sporting event.

You want to know how it ends.

The gap theory

I start a lot of books, but I don't finish many. Only occasionally will I finish I book. Once in a great while, I will be so impressed with a book that I will finish it, then purchase the audio and listen to the whole thing again. Made to Stick by brothers Chip and Dan Heath is one of those books. They explore six facets of what it takes to make a message stick. (Are you wondering what they are?) It is a great read, and, one of these days, I am hoping to do a review of the book. But, for now, let's look at an excerpt from pages 84 - 85.

In 1994 Greg Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University provided the most comprehensive account of situational interest. It is surprisingly simple. Curiosity happens, he says, when we feel a gap in our knowledge.

Loewenstein argues that gaps cause pain. When we want to know something but don't, it is like having an itch that we need to scratch. To take ways the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap. We sit patiently through bad movies, even though they may be painful to watch, because it is too painful to not know how they will end.

This "gap theory" seems to explain why some domains seems to create fanatical interest: They naturally create knowledge gaps. Take movies for instance. McKee's language is similar to Loewenstein's: McKee says, "Story works by posing questions and opening situations." Movies cause us to ask, "What will happen?" Mystery novels cause us to ask, "Who did it?" Sports contests cause us to ask, "Who will win?" Crossword puzzles cause us to ask, "What is a six letter word for psychiatrist?" Pokémon cards cause kids to wonder, "Which characters am I missing?"

One important implication of the gap theory is that we need to open gaps before we close them. Our tendency is to tell people the facts. First, they must realize they need the facts. [Think of that in terms of the last Sunday School lesson you heard or taught.] The trick to convincing people they need our message, according to Loewenstein is to highlight some specific knowledge that they are missing. We can pose a question or a puzzle that confronts people with a gap in their knowledge. We can point out that someone else knows something that we don't. We can present them with situation that have unknown resolutions, such as elections, sporting events, or mysteries. We can challenge them to predict an outcome (Which creates two gaps--What will happen? and Was I right?)

How I use the gap theory in my talks

I use this gap theory every week in my talks. I start with two facts:

  • Doubling a class is possible. It only requires growing from ten to fourteen in a year to double every two years or less. Recently, I have been showing a few video testimonies of teachers that have done it. You can see these testimonies at www.joshhuntnm.blogspot.com Doubling is possible and it is happening.
  • Doubling is incredible. A group that doubles every eighteen months will reach a thousand people in ten years.

This begs the question: why isn't this happening routinely? Why isn't it happening all the time? I get people in groups and let them discuss this for a few minutes so they can pit one opinion against another. I want to get this gap really wide.

When we get back together, they are expecting I will tell them the answer, but I don't. I just let the gap hang there for a time--about an hour. I say, "We will get to that answer in a moment, but before we do, let's look at some real live situations where this is really happening. Let's look at a world wide movement of doubling groups.

I go into a long piece where I tell all kinds of stories about groups that are doubling. There is great variety in these stories so people keep wondering, "What do all these people have in common?" I provide statistics and graphs that demonstrate there really is a world-wide movement of doubling groups.

The gap stays open till toward the end of the first session, then I close it with these twin statements:

  • In order to double a class in two years or less and reach a thousand people in the next ten years, as is happening all over the world, we must joyfully, personally, enthusiastically and sincerely embrace the vision of groups growing and dividing, growing and dividing, growing and dividing.
  • The reason this is not happening in many cases is that many times we are steadfastly opposed to the vision of growing and dividing, growing and dividing, growing and dividing.

There is a simple and easy to understand reason why many groups are not reaching the full potential of a group multiplication movement: we are opposed to the very thing that makes it happen. We are opposed to the vision of growing and dividing, growing and dividing, growing and dividing.

I close that gap, then quickly open another one: when we come back from break we will talk about a five step strategy for how to grow a class and how to divide a class. (Lists tend to open gaps because it makes us wonder what the other points are.)

Summary

In order to make a story work, you have to make the question clear. You have to plant in your listeners a burning curiosity to want to know Who done it? How will this work out?

Don't give answers till your people are sufficiently curious about the question.