A Touch of Darkness

Using drama and conflict persuades people to care about the outcome of your story.

I have an inherited sweet tooth. As a child, it was the rare week when my mom didn’t whip up a batch of homemade cookies for our school lunches. My grandma, who loved her ice cream, always said she started planning meals with dessert and worked backward from there.

Recently, I stumbled across “the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies” so, naturally, I had to try them. Like any cookie connoisseur knows, the right ingredients make all the difference. In addition to recommending the use of dark chocolate chips, this recipe adds just a touch of sea salt to the top of the cookies before sliding them into the oven. Mmmmm!

Good stories, like good cookies, require just the right touch of savory to balance the sweet. In more literary terms, no one gives a rat’s ass about a story without conflict.

Candy coated
Just about any PowerPoint presentation, press release, or research report, is greeted with stifled yawns, apathy, or even worse, cynicism.

No one believes in a story with a linear trajectory devoid of trouble. In this relentlessly rosy world, where increasing revenues are a given, and all your products and services are considered world-class, your audience might experience a sugar high if the message wasn’t so severely dull and pointless. To pretend otherwise is to live in a fairytale world of rainbows and unicorns.

The most memorable stories recognize that personal struggles, and hard-won victories, are universal. Exposing the obstacles along the way mines your audience’s shared sense of pain and increases appreciation for authentic accomplishments.

Finding drama 
Deep down, human beings have a profound need to understand things on a personal level. Emotional experiences are clearly the most memorable.

“But my [life, company, organization, product, service] just isn’t that exciting.”

That statement is the adult equivalent of the child’s summertime bleating, “I’m bored.” When you frame your story as a struggle against a series of pesky antagonists, your audience will become invested in the outcome, and you become the hero. Without them, you’ll be ignored.

Antagonists come in many guises — time, money, deadlines, another person or organization, societal norms, the weather — virtually any opposing force or obstacle. Living life brings conflict every day. To ignore it or gloss it over is to miss the opportunity.

The best storytellers, artists, and organizations find ways to include both darkness and light in their work. As frenetic and original as Robin Williams was as a comedian, it was in his dramatic roles — Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Insomnia — that we saw the true breadth of his talent.

The work of the best-loved children’s authors is rife with all manner of unspeakable atrocities on the way to those happy endings. If the fans of Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl, et al, can handle the dark side — hell, embrace it — then your audience can, too.

Honesty and persuasion
 In some corners of the nonprofit world, and often in academia, there is a profound mistrust of those who aim to shape perceptions. Derogatory terms like spin doctor or snake oil salesman may be tossed around as a way of discounting emotion and elevating rational thinking.

“Branding is dishonest. We can’t be advertised like a tube of toothpaste.”

A common mistake when presenting an organization’s selling points is to believe that we can sway an audience solely with facts. No equation compels people to act or change behavior. The human mind is terrible at processing mathematical data.

The gravelly-voiced singer-songwriter Tom Waits once observed: “We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; Quantity is being confused with abundance, and wealth with happiness.”

We see what we want to see, we hear what we want to hear, and fit the data to match. We’re storytellers!

The most honest thing you can do is to use all that messy drama, the intractable struggle against antagonists big and small, to persuade people to listen and to care about your story. To tell compelling stories is to understand the difference between measuring things and paying attention.

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Dan Woychick helps mission-driven organizations make great ideas happen at woychickdesign.com. To receive insights on nonprofit design and marketing, subscribe to his blog.

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