I love a good story as much as the next guy. As a matter of fact, you could say I make a living by telling stories. When I’m on my game and telling a good story, you never know how it might end. That helps me hold my audience’s attention. When I’m really on my game, I can keep an audience in suspense for five to ten minutes. Sometimes we call this teasing an audience. It’s a great challenge, and a wonderful thing to do… when you’re telling the right story.
The other day I spoke with my cousin who was shaken by a story she had been told. Her son was on a skiing trip in Canada, and the bus line that was transporting the kids called out of the blue. A bus company calling? Out of the blue? The mind doesn’t naturally jump to “Perhaps the bus line is calling to tell me how nice the weather conditions are up on the mountain” as its first conclusion. My cousin’s mind was racing, jumping to all kinds of conclusions, and none of them were good.
The conversation continued: “Is your son named Matthew?” As you can imagine, her mind raced even faster. The good news was the bus line was calling to tell her that the route they were taking was slightly different than the itinerary they had been given, and, oh, as an afterthought, that everything was okay. That was a responsible thing to do. Unfortunately it took the person who was calling about thirty seconds to get to part about everything being okay. That was a totally irresponsible thing to do.
How many times have you spoken to your spouse, your friend, or your client, and had to endure those nasty thirty seconds of suspense? Where does your mind go when you hear statements like these?
- “Listen, I want to see you in my office because I have something that I need to tell you.” While working for Xerox I heard the first phrase from time to time. I guess I was lucky because it (almost) never involved anything bad that I had done. Just the same, it still made my heart race every time I heard it. Sometimes I was given the extra gift of having to wait until the next day to hear what a good job I had done.
- “Something has happened that I need to tell you about, and it involves your daughter.” I remember that one vividly. That little teaser almost buckled my knees as the person meandered through a ridiculous story. The conclusion taught me about a school project my daughter might have won an award for.
- “We had a fire in our home.” This one I know all too well, because it happened to have been a story that I told… only once. As a matter of fact, this simple phrase taught me all I needed to know about how NOT to weave a story. Seven years ago, we did have a rather significant fire in our home, but no one was harmed, and nothing serious was lost. Did you hear the way I just said that? I’m pretty good at saying that phrase, because over the years I’ve said it over a hundred times – just that way.
I learned my lesson about how to tell stories by the look of panic in another person’s eyes as I mentioned we had a fire. I learned that there’s a time for drama, and there’s a time to begin with the ending. I can assure you that there is a lot more to the fire story than just this: “We did have a rather significant fire in our home, but no one was harmed, and nothing serious was lost.” Even though I might be giving away the end of the story a little early, don’t you think it’s more compassionate to let people know that it ends up okay? Rather than using a suspenseful introduction as a way to keep someone interested, it’s much nicer to not use this moment to build suspense in another person’s all to terrified brain.
It’s a classic case of learning when to begin with the end, and then filling in the blanks. I know it doesn’t quite make for the most theatrical of stories, but it sure is considerate to those who are listening.