Storytelling : Engagement with Mystery Stories

Why are some teachers, facilitators or just communicators way better than the others in engaging?

Over the years I have gained insights on what makes a classroom experience engaging. Unfortunately, great content on its own rarely works. Engaging communicators use a combination of Great Content + Great Engagement Techniques.

Here is one of the trick I use for creating engagement in my Storytelling Workshops 

Robert Cialdini in his book Pre- Suasion: A Revolutionary way to Influence and Persuade brought my attention to this very effective and underused technique.

Let me set the context by sharing two contrasting personal experiences I have had.

Experience 1: 3 years ago, I attended a workshop by a well known academic writer. I paid a bomb to attend the workshop. However, I struggled with the content during the workshop. I felt bored and at some stages the self doubt kicked in and I told myself, ” This is all too intelligent for you”.

Experience 2: 4 years ago, I was working on a project with a focus on Sales Storytelling. At the end of the project, I was invited by the CEO of the company to attend the Company Awards. The awards started by the CEO telling a story of how he came to know about the fire that burnt their entire factory in Sydney. Factory burning incident had been a major event in the recent past of the company and deserved a mention by the CEO with an aim to applaud the team on handling the business growth despite the disaster.

Here is the story the CEO told

”  A year ago, I got on a flight from USA back to Singapore, switched off my phone and settled in for a long flight. The next vivid memory I have is of landing in Singapore and seeing more than 50 missed calls on my mobile phone from the team in Sydney. I straight away called the team and our colleague Jo ( not his real name ) said,” Rob, we are on fire” I thought that was good thing but it cannot be that straightforward right ?  Of course, what Jo was trying to tell me was that the factory had caught fire and most of it was burnt. I told Jo I will get there asap. I got home and told my wife Paula that I have to get on the plane again. Paula turned around and said, ” of course you have to go but before you go, you have to find our cat who went missing today. So, in the heat of Singapore I am jumping up and down the fences looking for our cat. I then caught a flight to Sydney that afternoon and came to the office expecting all sorts if things but everything was so calm and the whole plan on how to deal with the situation had been thought out. I saw teamwork, excellence under pressure and it is the result of those traits that we did so well  last year despite the disaster.”

As soon as the CEO finished telling the story,  I witnessed a whisper virus spreading in the room. One person whispered in to another person’s ear, ” What do you think happened to the cat?” A few mins later every table was discussing the cat .An hour later I saw the CEO come back up on the stage and say, ” I hear you all want to know what happened to the cat?” Well, we found him and I had to pay a ransom of S$200 to rescue our kidnapped cat!

If I compare the two experiences. The second experience has high levels of engagement and other not.

What is the Mystery behind the CEO’s ability to engage?

This mystery is the Mystery Story. Most of us deliver workshops, presentations via description of content. Sometimes we  create interaction by asking questions but an even better approach is generation of mystery stories.

What about Mystery Stories makes them so engaging?

1) Unresolved: Mystery Stories are unresolved and they hold our attention

2) Explanatory: Descriptions require notice and questions require answers and mysteries require explanations

3) Personal Relevance: Mystery stories do not need personal relevance—they bring their own in the form of a need for clo- sure

 So,how can you use this insight?
Its  simple, start your presentations, classroom lectures, workshops with a relevant mystery story and its unresolved nature will hold people’s attention.
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