The storyteller and the experiencer

Nomunculus

Deep inside you lives an undividable soul, the real you, a core that knows what you feel and what you really want. Right?

Well, that view is a bit outdated.

As psychology advances we find that people seem to be more of a gaggle of different subsystems. You’re not a person. You’re a committee. No hidden homunculus.

Rule by committee

Example?

It is late, but tomorrow you have a lot of work. No problem, you say. I just set the alarm clock early and eat a big chunk out of my work first thing in the morning. I can do it!

Next morning. You wake up from the alarm. Grumpy. Put it on snooze. 9 minutes later: snooze again. I do NOT feel like getting up. What was I thinking yesterday?

 

The storyteller and the experiencer

Let’s look at two characters in the mind of our audience that are particularly important to speakers: the storyteller and the experiencer.

Your experiencer knows only one timeframe: now. It doesn’t care about past or future, all it does is measure how things feel now. Experience! It can be elated, satisfied, sad, enamored. But whatever it feels, it’s always there. In the moment. In the now. Fully.

 

And then there is the storyteller. The storyteller tries to make sense of your life. We can’t just be surrounded by random input, random thoughts, random encounters. Surely there needs to be some deeper meaning, some plan, some bigger story?

So the storyteller invents one – whether it’s right or not doesn’t matter. The storyteller uses the weaving loom and ties all the threads of your life together. That tapestry is what you remember, and the strings that didn’t fit are simply lost.

The storyteller

While the storyteller weaves your memories, the experiencer meanwhile forgets all about the original experience. But the storyteller’s memories can make it experience again.

 

Who is more important?

Obviously, both are important. But imagine this choice:

You are offered a free holiday. Either:

  • A week to a somewhat interesting location with somewhat interesting things to do and somewhat interesting people to meet. In other words, it’s better than nothing but far from stellar.
  • The holiday of  your dreams, whatever it is – that cruise to the south pole, the safari, a trip into low earth orbit, you name it.

One caveat: if you choose the second option, upon return all your memories (and photos) will be wiped, so you will have no recollection whatsoever of what you’ve experienced.

Which one do you choose?

 

Your audience is split as well

As a speaker you should be aware that every single member of your audience also has an experiencer and a storyteller.  What does this mean for your speech? Do you cater for both? Which one should you serve first, and how?

The answer is simple.

First, your speech needs to be an experience for them. The experiencer hands the threads to the storyteller to create the memory after all. If you fail to engage it, you fail to reach your audience.

In order to be an experience you don’t need to be good. You need to be different.

And then you feed the storyteller. Indirectly, through the experiencer. You want your message to be remembered. And what does the storyteller remember best? Stories! What kind of stories do you feed it? Lively stories! Because the storyteller gets fed by the experiencer!

 

The storyteller’s secret

In order to get to the secret of the storyteller in your head, I will need to share a bit of a dirty story. In a study in 1996 Kahneman and Redelmeier did research on colonoscopy patients. Colonoscopy, without going into further depth (oops), is known as a quite unpleasant experience.

In one group the catheter was removed as was the norm: immediately.

In the other group catheterization lasted about twice as long, but the last minutes the experience, though still unpleasant, became somewhat less so.

Overall, the experiencer experienced more pain in the second version. However, when asked afterward, the second version was considered a lot less painful by the storyteller.

It is called the peak-end rule, and it’s the storyteller’s secret. What the storyteller remembers of what you tell is the peak and the end, the rest will likely be forgotten. That’s life.

So what does that mean for your speech or your presentation? Pay special attention to the apotheosis and to the end. Let it flow like a good story, like a fairy tale, like a movie. If you work towards a climax and have a happy ending your audience will love it…

The last laugh

As over time your speech slowly fades in the memories of the audience, your story merges into their own stories. Funny enough, there is one thing that lasts: the memory of the experience.

As Maya Angelou put it so nicely:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

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