I’m at the Dickens Extravaganza in Cape May, New Jersey, this week, along with about 50 other English literature lovers. It’s like my senior year at Rutgers without the pressure of finals. We’re enjoying lectures about the origin of the English language; examining the work and impact of Dickens and other great authors; and being read immortal passages by professors who are passionate about preserving them.
The power of words to influence and inspire is never more evident than in the work of a master storyteller. Here are three tips for leaders who want to capture their audiences’ attention and keep them on the edge of their seats:
Start with a bang. William Shakespeare’s opening scenes relied on three never-fail devices: supernatural creatures, violence, or teenage sex, according to Professor Elliott Engel of North Carolina State University. Savvy speakers know that citing a startling statistic is attention-grabbing; an edgy anecdote could be even more engrossing.
Build on a familiar framework. The audience at the Globe Theater in the 1500s included people from all walks of London life, from Queen Elizabeth and her court to commoners, called “groundlings,” who could not afford the price of a seat and instead stood at the foot of the stage. To convey his plots quickly to audiences of varying levels of education, Shakespeare often used fairy tale narratives and characters as the basis for his plays. Leaders who keep their content relatable to everyone in their audience ensure broad understanding and also can successfully add nuanced messages.
Invite creative tension. When Charles Dickens invented Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly main character of “A Christmas Carol,” and populated the story with ghosts, it was with the deliberate intention of undercutting Victorians’ cloying sentimentality about the holiday. The tale of Scrooge’s “reclamation” is the iconic fight between good and evil. Business leaders driving organizational transformation might channel their inner Dickens. Pit complacency and change against each other, acknowledge the struggle between them, and sketch out scenarios to describe the outcomes of following each path. A compelling story can help overcome skepticism and make the right direction clear and noble.
What great author do you admire, and how can you use his or her storytelling techniques to make your own messages memorable?