Brad had a wonderful opportunity to hear Ann Bloch present at the National Speakers Association (NSA) Annual Convention in August, 2000. Ann's presentation was titled The Alfred Hitchcock Effect: Build Suspense into Every Story. With such a great title, it was standing room only. Those who were fortunate enough to attend weren't disappointed because Ann's content was as good as her title.
She pointed out that more than 90 percent of all presenters use a chronological approach to organize and tell their stories, and that by adding flashbacks and foreshadowing, we can add suspense, novelty, and intrigue to our presentations. Ann stated: "Foreshadowing and flashback make ordinary stories spellbinding! [You can]…restructure your stories to captivate audiences from the first word. Like the legendary director [Alfred Hitchcock], you can reveal details deliberately, not chronologically, to sustain suspense. Master storytellers weave both techniques to mesmerize listeners."
Ann then artfully illustrated Hitchcock's three variations on a theme with three movies. The first movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this movie, all of the action takes place chronologically. The film starts out with Indiana Jones lecturing on archeology in his classroom and then shifts quickly into the adventure.
To illustrate flashbacks, Ann chose the movie Snow Falling on Cedars. This beautifully told story is a courtroom drama, however, each time one of the characters takes the witness stand, the movie flashes back to explain that character's development as well as to move the story forward.
Ann then illustrated foreshadowing with the film American Beauty. Foreshadowing is a technique that tells you in advance what the outcome is or at least provides a clue as to how an event or action will play out. You then go back in time to figure out how the outcome occurred. For example, in many of Hitchcock's movies, the audience knows who the murderer is. Hitchcock then takes you back in time and you and the detectives have to figure out how that outcome was arrived at. In American Beauty, the film begins with foreshadowing when the male protagonist of the film says:
My name is Lester Bernham. This is my neighborhood, this is my street, this is my life. In less than a year, I'll be dead. Of course, I don't know that yet.
Then the rest of the film moves forward to that ending.
We can now look at how these three approaches can be used in telling a story that Brad uses in his presentation on negotiating skills.
Brad: When my daughter was 18 months old, she had a very bad eye accident. She tripped and fell head first into a store display and one of the pegboard hooks badly damaged her eye. We were incredibly lucky, and a year later Katie's eye had recovered perfectly. I use this story in my negotiation course to explain how I negotiated to have the hooks changed and the store made safer. Using the three variations, I can tell the story in chronological order, or I can tell it with flashbacks or foreshadowing.
My wife and son were negotiating the purchase of winter boots. He wanted the winter boots with the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles decal on them that were twice as expensive as the same boot without the decal. At the same time, my daughter, who was then 18 months old, spotted character slippers, which looked like stuffed animals and were suspended on pegboard hooks from three feet down to the floor. I let her out of her stroller, and she ran to play with the slippers. Unfortunately, as toddlers do, she tripped and fell head first into the display. To my horror, I couldn't get to her in time, and one of the display hooks caught her in the eye…. A year later, Katie's eye perfectly corrected itself and with a lot of persuasion, the store changed all 10 million of its display hooks at a cost of $2.9 million.
To this day, I still have nightmares of the day we went to have our family's Christmas picture taken. It all started out as an ordinary trip to the mall….
My 18-month-old daughter cost several major department stores $2.9 million.
Each of these techniques works very well. I have tried all three methods in my presentations and the one that has the most impact for this particular story is foreshadowing. Experiment with all three and ask for listener feedback as to which one works the best.
Part I: As they are being delivered, analyze the organizational structure of several of the stories from the best presentations you attend. Did the presenter use any combination of the methods presented here? Please note that this exercise is more difficult than it first appears, as Master Presenters often organize their presentations in a way that appears seamless.
Part II: Develop a story by using one of these three methods (chronological, foreshadowing, or flashbacks). Choose a technique that you have not used before or with which you have the least experience.
Doug Stevenson likens excellent story development and storytelling to making spaghetti sauce:
You may start out with tomato sauce, but that's not enough by itself. Nobody would ever mistake plain old tomato sauce for tangy, savory spaghetti sauce. Tomato sauce is a good foundation, but you need to add oregano, basil, green peppers, garlic, (at least in our family!), and onions to make it fulfill its potential. Then it needs to simmer for a while. After all the ingredients mix and mingle, then you've got full-flavored spaghetti sauce.
Your story is like that. It's a good place to start, but you need to add garlic and onions, which in story terms are the equivalent of a substantive point and a solid organizational structure. Then, you need to spice it up with acting techniques that help audience members SEE what you're SAYING. Then, the story needs to simmer over time, which is the creative process in which you write, re-write, rehearse, practice, and polish. Finally, you've cooked up a mentally and visually delicious story, which has the power to move people to laughter and tears, and which will be remembered long after you're gone.
In summary, the power of stories depends on crafting superbly developed tales combined with a seamless delivery—just like Hitchcock.
Ann Bloch, Ann Bloch Communications, (413) 637–0958, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You can order a tape of Ann's session titled: The Alfred Hitchcock Effect: Build Suspense into Every Story, available from Convention Cassettes Unlimited (see Resources for contact information).
Stevenson, Doug. Never Be Boring Again, Colorado Springs, Colo.: Cornelia Press, 2003, pp. 28–29.