Art of Story (Part 3)
On a brisk Serengeti evening I pitched a tent for the first time in front of the Barafu Kopjes , rock outcrops that predators and lizards enjoy sunning themselves on. After proving to everyone I was an amateur nest builder, I joined my group, who were all chugging sundowners below a lilac sunset.
Beneath our very own Pride Rock, under a blanket of stars we ate baked squash and grilled meats, and shortly after, it was time to cocoon up in our sleeping bags. With a tent to myself, I was a little unsettled about closing my eyes on the wild around me but I found myself drifting off soon enough.
A few hours go by when I wake up with a start, assailed by anxiety, my pulse racing, my breathing rapid, my core temperature steadily rising. I immediately reach for my cell phone. Time check? 1: 34 a.m. I feel my skin burn up, as my pores begin to sweat, profusely. Fever from a tick bite? Scorpion sting? Puff Adder? What was happening to me?
All my cells, alert and uncomfortable, as I hear what sounds like footsteps, muffled yet close. My whole body now throbbing with fear. My first thought. . . maybe my team was pranking me, so I called out. Rob? Tom? No answer. Then a low rumble inhales me in through the tent fabric, nuzzling into the top of my head. My entire being immediately froze over. There was no point screaming for help. My heart pumping hard, as I see the shadow of a long whip like tail move across the ceiling of my tent. It grew increasingly stark that a curious large cat was investigating me.
My racing pulse rate was quickly selling me short, as prey. I had to find a way to slow down my heart rate, for it’s now clear there is more than one lion circling my space. I reckon, should the worst go down that I would not die riddled with fear, but pass in a state of oneness, with utter awareness of my death. I figured with a pride after me, it would be a swift end, and since there was no way to outrun or out think these fierce hunters that I might as well surrender to the inevitable.
Once I accepted the very real possibility of death, I could bring my focus back to my life, I was still breathing, and if i could try breathing at the same rate as the lions outside, then maybe, just maybe that would bring my heart rate down, help reduce the stress on my system and throw the pride off my scent. So as I heard the lion inhale, I inhaled, when she exhaled, I exhaled. A breath in, a breath out, breath for breath, we were one.
See, animals have this incredible ability to stay present, so I took a page out of their book and chose to be animal. I chose not to skip ahead to an end that had not happened yet. I chose to be present, I chose to stay with my breath. In a moment I had transformed from prey to predator, I too was a lion, and there was no fear. I saw the lion in me and myself in the lion. We were one. There was no other. To feel no boundary to my being, my life, to feel united with what I considered external to me, was profoundly and wildly intoxicating. I have never been more alive than when I was that close to death.
Moments like that have come to define me, because they bring my entire being to the present tense, to the moment at hand. As humans we oscillate a lot on a linear timeline, past to future, with brief pauses on the present, but we seldom remain with what is unfolding before our very eyes on a given breath.
When I narrate such an anecdote I am trying to bring the experience alive for you, the audience. Did you find yourself there in that tent as well? Reading a story about someone versus hearing that person narrate it to you, results in very different uptake. Had you heard me in person, you would have been hanging on to every word, feeling everything I felt when I was in that tent. Some of that might have carried through while passively reading it, but a story always has more impact in live delivery. Why is that? Because we have grown up to the sound of oral narratives thanks to our grandmothers.
But more importantly why and how do stories affect us?
There are four distinct stages you endure as a captivating story is being unveiled one juicy sound byte at a time to you.
Neural coupling is a term assigned to the audience’s ability to mirror the storyteller’s brain.
A good story keeps pace with your internal workings, it unveils insights when you think it should, it hides information when you need it to, and throughout its length you are able to discern its underlying pattern, predict its outcome and identify with its characters.
Mirroring occurs when all the members of the audience are transported by the story into the same shared experience, the same moment in time. Isn’t that incredible? That as a storyteller you can not only get every viewer or listener into the same space in time but also in the same emotional and cognitive landscape. This encourages kinship and a sense of belonging, which is why human communities have been gathering around fires in circles to tell tall tales since we accidentally sparked off a flint.
You experience a rush of Dopamine, when you find a story so pleasurable or fascinating that you grow briefly addicted to the high of listening to it. Once your brain lights up with this feel good neurotransmitter, you can’t help but go back for seconds. Your blood and brain also light up with Oxycontin and Cortisol the prior is the empathy hormone, which makes you care and connect, the latter elevates your stress and puts you in a flight or fight mode which prepares you for threats and tensions. This is why your palms sweat when you are watching a girl being stalked by a serial killer… I mean seriously has she never seen a horror movie before? Don’t turn that dark corner you pied ninny, that’s how you die! This is why I always put scary, or sad movies on pause. I honestly believe the characters need such a time out to reconsider their words and re-evaluate their decisions. Not like this has ever changed a film’s plot from the director’s final cut, but a small part of me is truly optimistic that somewhere in the multiverse a different iteration of me has managed to have a break through and changed the course of a film midway...simply by pausing it. Miracles happen, don’t be a tool.
Did you know stimulating stories with a pronounced experiential quality leave people feeling like it actually happened to them? They will recall and retell it like they genuinely endured it. Stories can come to change people on a deeply personal level.
The digital age is like constantly hanging out around a campfire, there is always a large tribe of eager individuals ready to absorb a significant yet synoptic story. So when I design a narrative for transmedia, (multiple media platforms) I always ensure it translates well on each forum. I bear the limitations and strengths of each platform in mind, before blasting content out through any or all of them.
To play on the strengths of each media conduit you need to use them strategically by contrasting what you reveal against what you withhold. In this way you build sustained interest in the topic.
Sidebar: Have you been noticing my word slides? They all employ the primary color scheme, yet another ploy to get you hooked. Who does not like their daily fix of primaries? Sesame Street wouldn’t captivate us if Elmo, Big Bird and the Cookie Monster were rendered in any other hues. Red, Yellow and Blue are where it’s at, from the building blocks we had fun with as toddlers, to the first crayon or paint sets we ever owned. They immediately make your learning seem like fun! It works for Coca Cola and Pepsi, it works for countries, and it certainly works for children’s books. So don’t be surprised that some of your favorite brands fall within this limited palette.
I am going to end this post with the most important assertion of all: Stories absolutely need to be anchored in true emotion. Feelings nothing but feelings, it’s the fuel that all content needs to ignite and illuminate. Why? Because…