And The Point Is…? Storytelling and the Art of Persuasion
A key to persuasive communication is to make your point obvious. Without it, people lose focus or get lost in thought. Your point is your main idea, underscored with the reasons to consider it. Whether it’s a factual presentation, or the exchange of information, if you want people to pay attention from start to finish, make your point obvious sooner than later.
That’s not to say that a story can’t be pleasurable to hear when there is no particular point, because people exchange stories and experiences like that all the time. But when your purpose is to get people to connect with your ideas, then you need to make certain they know what you are driving at before you start driving.
Imagine getting in a car with someone and heading off on a trip. At what point would you wonder where you were going? Would it be an hour into the trip? More likely, it’s before you get in the car. You would want to know, as quickly as possible, where the car is heading. Then you could make an informed decision about the trip.
When you begin talking to someone about an idea, you may win a minute or a few by virtue of your energy and enthusiasm. But if your point isn’t forthcoming, people will lose interest, their attention will wander, and by the time you get to the point, they’ll have come up with their own. “It was pointless.) It’s a good idea to build what you say around a central idea, and then highlight that idea before giving people the details.
Some stories have no point. People tell them for the pleasure of talking, or standing in the spotlight of another’s attention. Story tellers love the challenge of holding attention as long as possible while telling a story with no point. It’s called a shaggy dog tale, and the image it brings to mind to those who tell such tales is a gleeful dog chasing it’s tail. A shaggy dog tale has all the ingredients of a good story. It has characters, it has what sounds like an unfolding plot, it has drama and suspense, comedy, dialog, etc. It cycles through the same event over and over, each time slightly different, just enough to keep it going. The key to telling it is to make each cycle sound exciting, interesting and new, even though it’s not. And nothing gets resolved, because the story has no point. And because it has no point, people inevitably become restless after awhile. Here’s the point. Any time you fail to make the point obvious, it seems like you are telling a shaggy dog tale. The only resolution people can get when they don’t get the point is to walk away. Even if they can’t go away, their attention can.
To illustrate the story type, I could tell you a story about the night I told a shaggy dog tale with the purpose of clearing out a restaurant. However, the story is quite long. I’ve been advised not to tell you this story in writing, because knowing it has no point might keep you from reading it. It’s a shame, really, because it’s a great story. It’s not about a dog, though.
It is possible to use this story form to spin a tale that goes on forever. To illustrate the story type, I could tell you the whole story about the night I told a shaggy dog story with the purpose of clearing out a restaurant. However, the story is quite long. I’ve been advised not to commit this story to writing, because knowing it has no point might keep you from reading it. That’s a shame, really, because it’s a great story.
Tell you what. I won’t tell you the whole thing, but I’ll tell you the very beginning of it.
You see, many years ago, probably 22 or 23 years ago, maybe even longer, I dated a girl who waitressed at an expensive restaurant near my home. I made it my habit to walk over and wait for her to get off work each evening. But on this particular night, I arrived to find that my girlfriend was being held captive by a group of diners having a dinner party that had no end in sight. She informed me that she couldn’t leave until her customers left. Since they showed no inclination to leave, she thought it might be another hour before she could call it a night.
I knew the restaurant owner, and he knew of my work as a speaker because he’d seen my work when I’d spoken to an association in which he was a member. He wanted to close up his restaurant, but found himself in the same dilemma – he couldn’t leave until his customers left. I was in a hurry for my girlfriend to be through, so I told him that if he were to introduce me to the diners and give me the microphone, I could clear the place out in 15 minutes. He was delighted to have a plan that would get him home sooner than later.
I told him exactly how to introduce me, and instructed him to have his wait staff start clearing the tables about two minutes after I got started.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are fortunate to have a well known guest with us tonight who, among other talents and abilities, has a gift for making a short story long. Please welcome Dr. Rick…” I came out, took the microphone, and thanked everyone for coming out. I praised the restaurant and the owner, told them that I could tell from their conversation and laughter and the empty plates in front of them that they’d had a lovely time and were going to not only come back but to tell all their friends to dine at the restaurant. Everyone was smiling and nodding, as I began my story.
“As you’re finishing up and getting ready to go home for the night, and as the staff finishes clearing the tables, (and out came the eager staff, right on cue) I want give you a story to take with you. Now I must warn you, it’s a shaggy dog story, so it takes a really long time to tell. If you can’t stay for the end, and if I were you I wouldn’t, or if you need to leave, and if I were you I would, please feel free to leave at any time, starting right now, I won’t be at all offended and I wish you a very pleasant evening.” And there it was, my point was for them to go home. I stated it right up front. Then I began my story. “This is the story of the hot potato knish.”
“There once was a man who loved to eat. He would travel the world in search of novel food pleasures. But in his opinion there was nothing that compared in eating delight to the savory richness and goodness of one of God’s unique food creations, no doubt the source of the manna that appeared in the desert to a wandering tribe thousands of years ago. I am referring of course, to a freshly made, perfectly prepared, taste sensation that is the hot…potato…knish. And in all the world, he had found only one place that knew how to perfectly prepare this tasty treat. They only made fresh knish on Mondays, and they only made them at night. And on this particular Monday night, he knew that he was in the right place at the right time for the tastiest treat a man can eat. But he also knew, and most don’t realize this, that the peak of the experience is when the hot potato knish is freshly made, within minutes of it emerging from the kitchen.”
I won’t tell you the rest of the story, but I told it to them in all it’s steaming glory. Every once in a while I repeated the invitation to leave, even though the story wasn’t done. It’s probably more fun to tell this kind of story than it is to hear, because in a shaggy dog story the story teller does everything possible to make it look and sound interesting, like he’s building to the conclusion. The goal is to keep the audience listening, even though the story is going nowhere and nothing will be resolved. The key to telling it is to make each cycle sound exciting, engaging and interesting, even though it’s not.
The story has all the ingredients of a good story. It has characters, it has what sounds like an unfolding plot, it has drama and suspense, and comedy, it has dialog, etc. The inherent implication in the way you tell it is that it has a punch line, or achieves some resolution, and that this is where the story is headed. But it doesn’t ever arrive. It cycles through the same event over and over, each time just slightly different, just enough to keep it going. Because the story has no point. Although it does have a punch line. In this case, the punch line is, “He don’t wanna eat. He wants to argue!” But because there really is no point to the story other than going on about it, people inevitably become restless after awhile. (Please, stick with me a little longer.) Restless is what happens to people anytime they don’t know the point of what they hear. The only resolution people can get when they don’t get the point is to give up and walk away, or make up the point.
In this story about telling that story, the story is not the point, nor is this type of story the point. I already made the point at the beginning of this blog post, and I made it obvious. To spare you having to go back up and see the point at this point, the point for you is this.
If there is a point you are trying to make, make it. Make it clear. Make it right up front. Tell people what you’re going to tell them, and why. Because when you talk to people, the last thing you want them thinking about is, ‘Why are you telling me this?”
If your main idea isn’t clear to you, stop and clarify it for yourself. Otherwise, instead of talking with people, or talking to people, you may wind up talking at people. At which point they’ll be unlikely to hear what you have to say. Make your point obvious.
Got a story to tell? Pointed or pointless, your comments are always welcome.
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.