Change-Detecting Machines

Issue 006. By Patrick Thomas

Welcome to The Story is the Strategy, a weekly newsletter about becoming a remarkable storyteller.

My mission is to help you become a world-class business communicator and significantly increase your professional impact. Learn more here.

Ideas to Improve Your Storytelling

🗞️ Naming complex problems is a really important tool for business storytelling. I’ve published an updated and expanded post about it on the website. My goal is to build up a library of these storytelling techniques over time and collect them all in one place for easy access.

📚 The Science of Storytelling. I’m always skeptical of books and articles that promise to explain the “science” of something, but this one has been a gem. It applies psychology and neuroscience to literature and stories, showing what our brains react to, what grabs our attention and how we construct models of the world. It’s aimed at novelists and screenwriters, but there are many useful nuggets for business communicators. I strongly recommend it.

Put it to Work

Identify a change to grab your audience’s attention. If you pick up any book on Hollywood screenwriting, you’ll see something about the importance of change as a driver of story plots. The Science of Storytelling explains why.

From an evolutionary standpoint, our primary goal is to survive long enough to reproduce. Our brains have thus evolved to detect change in the world around us as a means of controlling our environment and improving our chances of doing that:

You’re walking down the street, thinking about nothing in particular, and there’s unexpected change - there’s a bang; someone calls your name. You stop. Your internal monologue ceases. Your powers of attention switch on. You turn that amazing change-detecting machine in its direction to answer the question, ‘What’s happening?’

In other words, we’re wired to be interested in change. Any deviation from the status quo might signal a threat or an opportunity, so our brain focuses on it. And you can harness this natural interest to tell better and more enjoyable stories at work.

The next time you have to write a memo or give a presentation, begin by identifying and concisely describing a change. It could be something big, like an observation about the world, or the economy, or evolving consumer preferences. It could be something more specific to a business or organization, like the introduction of a new process, or changing demographics of the company workforce, or an upcoming visit from a senior executive.

The idea is to communicate a deviation from the status quo that’s relevant to your audience. In this way, you’re arousing curiosity, you’re creating the space for action, and you’re also creating opportunity: an unexpected change can be either positive or negative.

So when you’re framing things, remember: “updates” are boring; “problems” create anxiety... but “change” is an attention grabber.

As always, feedback is a gift. I’m still figuring out how to make this newsletter as useful as I can for you, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. I reply to every message I receive. If you’re enjoying it, please like this post or share it with your friends and colleagues. Thank you!