The last turn problem

Next time you’re driving somewhere new, notice how you process the directions you’ve been given.  If you’re like me, you’ll give your complete attention to the overall route and the first 9/10th of the drive, and then when the time comes, you’ll pay close attention to the last set of turns.  “OK, I’m doing a 2 hour drive, going North on I-95, and then I need to take Exit 16…” gets you most of the way there.

This is an efficient way to process information: it’s simple, you keep to the key information, and you’re processing the amount of information you can handle given that you’re a novice on this route.

Notice the difference between this (the information you want to be told by a friend giving you directions) and how two locals talk to each other about driving.  If you’ve  ever visited Los Angeles, you’ve seen this scene unfold: the first 30 minutes of a party are spent with people (all insiders) comparing notes on how they got there, which freeways they did and didn’t take, how they remembered that there was a Lakers game tonight so they did such-and-such differently…  This is interesting if you spend a lot of your day trying to figure out how to beat nightmarish traffic.  But if you, guest at said party and newcomer to LA, are listening to this conversation, you’re lost and you’re not learning what you need to hear.  You just want to know which freeway to take when you go home and where to get off.  In fact, you’re probably OK sitting in traffic if it’s a choice between that and getting lost altogether.

Now, hold this thought for a minute, and then ask yourself how you take your experience as a driver trying to get from point A to point B and use it to make your storytelling more effective.  And take as a given that you, the storyteller, know your story inside-out and backwards.  You’re the expert who knows all the back roads and has the best secret for skipping off the highway to beat rush-hour traffic.

Don’t start talking about the back roads.  Don’t give all the tips and secrets.  Tell the story at the level of information and expertise that is right for the listener, not for you.  You can and should telescope in from time to time to provide context and details and be specific.  But if all you’re doing is sharing the insider’s version of your story, you’ve lost your audience.

This is why “storytelling” matters.  It’s not because people want simple answers and live at the level of anecdote.  It’s because stories provide a common language and a way of interacting that everyone can relate to, so they become the vehicle through which the expert (hopefully you) and the neophyte (your audience…sometimes but definitely not always) can develop a common understanding.

And going back to the driving analogy, as you develop your story, you are driving along the freeway, and if you bring your audience with you, you can delve into the nitty-gritty details of those last 8 turns.  Just don’t start there.  They’re not ready for that conversation, because it doesn’t matter to them…yet.