“Good storytelling never gives you four, it gives you two plus two… Don’t give the audience the answer, give them the pieces and let them conclude the answer”

Have you ever read a Michael Lewis book? Liars Poker, The Big Short, Flash Boys? They’re all books about the finance industry. I’m not sure I can think of a duller subject to write about. However, if you have read any of his books, you’ll know they are riveting reads. Clichéd it may be, but they’re unputdownable. This is because Lewis is a great storyteller.

Throughout this series of reviews we’ve visited books on psychology, company culture and marketing. All these topics have the potential to be dry fact-filled subjects. But like Michael Lewis, each author is adept at telling stories, so the books are a compelling read.

In Into the Woods, John Yorke uses his 30 years’ experience of TV drama production to tell the story of the shape of all successful narratives. Without the ability to tell compelling stories, we’ll not be able to impart any of the information we’ve learned through the first four books.

The opening quote is from Andrew Stanton of Pixar, albeit paraphrased. It continues:

“Audiences have an unconscious desire to work for their entertainment. They are rewarded with a sense of thrill and delight when they find the answers themselves.”

What’s so interesting to me about this, is it ties in with things learned from Rory Sutherland “people seem to like choice for its own sake” and Daniel Kahneman “The more information, logic and reasoning you present to try to get an idea across, the more you actually push the audience away”. This is probably because you’re leaving the audience nothing to do, they don’t have to work for the answers.

The book goes into the basic structure of any story, as a commonly known three act structure. There is the thesis, the antithesis and the synthesis. Put another way in Hollywood simplicity terms:

Act One: Establish flawed character
Act Two: Confront them with their opposite
Act Three: Synthesise the two to establish balance

“The endless recurrence of the same underlying pattern suggests psychological, if not biological and physical reasons for the way we tell stories. If we don’t choose to tell them that way, perhaps we are compelled to.”

This statement from the book made me think of Kahneman’s studies and Sutherland’s observations once again. Is there something built in to us that means a story structured in this way compels us more? If we break from that structure, do we make our story less effective?

“‘Story as such’, said E. M. Forster, ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.”

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This is the famous Volkswagen Beetle advert. It’s widely recognised as a genius piece of marketing. “The advert sucks you in; it impels you to do the work…because it generates conflict and the desire for its resolution”. It is model storytelling on a single page.

Being cognisant of giving too much information, here are two final pieces of useful material. One, another book — Resonate by Nancy Duarte is great if you need to present at all. It’s a great guide to making compelling presentations. Speaking of which, here’s a brilliant startup pitch. Can you see the clear three act structure?

I’ve read these five books over the course of the last three or four years, starting with Creativity, Inc, then Into the Woods. The last of the five was Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy, which I read last year. I had no idea they would interweave in the manner they do, and none of them came to my attention through the forced serendipity of a digital algorithm. It is only with hindsight that I realise they lay such good foundations for achieving almost anything in the modern workplace. A simple set of rules, a manifesto if you like, could easily be formed using ideas in these five books from which to build products, teams or even whole companies. Maybe that’s a future post…