Why Structure Beats Content When You’re Trying To Get A Message Across

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Wednesday, 8.39pm

Sheffield, U.K.

What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. – Erwin Schrodinger

It’s funny the things you forget as you go through life making assumptions about reality.

I am still working through Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro: Improvisation and the theatre.

In the second chapter he talks about being spontaneous and the main message that I take away is that in the beginning, as children, we see things as they are.

We see for the first time – and so what we see is original.

As we grow, we see by imitating what others seem to see – and that originality fades away.

Then, one day we perhaps try and see things as they are again and rediscover what it means.

As an adult we are surprised and delighted when someone simply talks about what they see – as they see it.

That’s why we like comedians – people who make fun of the great and powerful and point out the real, human side of what they’re doing.

The third chapter is about narrative and here Johnstone says something that reminded me of what I had forgotten.

“Once you decide to ignore content it becomes possible to understand exactly what a narrative is, because you can concentrate on structure.”

The image above is one example of how this works.

Most people think that you must write sentences like the one on the left to be understood.

It turns out that it’s surprisingly easy to read the sentence on the right because your brain has the ability to create meaning from structure rather than content.

This sentence has the first and last letter of each word in place but all the other letters are scrambled, where possible.

But what your brain does is look for patterns, not individual characters – and so the shape and structure of a word matters much more than the arrangement of characters inside them.

In the same way when you tell a story what matters isn’t how well you describe your characters or how clearly you explain what they do or say but in what happens.

One of the challenges I have in interesting my children in old stories from India is that so many of them seem to have content but no structure – and that’s because the intention is perhaps to deliver a moral message.

But that moral lesson does not always make for an engaging story.

So, what are the elements of structure you need to know if you are trying to tell a story or craft a message, for example for a business presentation?

The first thing is that the ideas you introduce need to be linked back to ideas you’ve introduced previously.

For example, if you simply recount events as they happened – you are telling a story but you “havenn’t told a story.”

Johnstone’s book gives you a few examples but the key thing is that you need to link up what is being told.

All too often you’ll see presentations that are like a list of things – one after the other you hear point after point but only a few presenters are skilful enough to link the points together.

If you want to persuade, to involve, to motivate people as a result of what you’re saying you need to get better at composing stories.

And Johnstone says that one way to do this is to stop thinking about making a story but instead of “interrupting routines”.

You create drama and tension when something happens to interrupt what’s going on.

The example he gives is about mountain climbing.

If you describe two people climbing up a mountain and then climbing down you’ve not really said anything interesting.

But if two people climb up a mountain and discover a plane crash then all of a sudden you’ve interrupted the routine.

The three things to remember if you want to keep your audience engaged is to construct your story as a series of interrupted routines, make sure you focus on what is happening right in front of you and avoid having things just fizzle out.

For example if you were to use this approach in a presentation it means that you need to create a series of linked ideas that keep breaking routines, focus on what matters to the audience and end with something that gets them talking and engaged.

It’s not easy to give examples of this kind of thing in business because it’s sort of like the case of “you just had to be there” but you’ll recognise it in any story you see or read – without these elements you’ll simply get bored and walk away.

Let’s finish by restating the importance of the last point.

Johnstone calls this “cancelling”.

The example he uses is the following sort of dialogue.

A: “How do you feel”

B: “Not very well at all”

A: “Do you want a glass of water”

B: “Yes please”

A: Gets the water. “How do you feel now?”

B: “Much better, thanks.”

Now, at the end of the last sentence B has just cancelled things.

The story started by introducing a need for water and then took the need away – cancelling it.

There’s nowhere to go from here without introducing a new element.

On the other hand, if B had done something else like –

B: drops glass, “Oh no, it’s gone all over me.”

The action continues.

A story works when it keeps the audience hooked.

A presentation works the same way.

And the tricks you need to learn turn on using structure to your advantage, not content.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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