Thursday, July 23, 2009

Synopsis: Elements of Persuasion (The Hero)

Heroes show us how to change things. That's what I've taken to be the essence of The Elements of Persuasion's (TEOP) discussion about the Hero. They live the story, personify it, and show us how to change our own lives.

Once you've connected with an audience through a shared passion, a hero allows the audience to 'access' the story. (*) Having a hero allows the storyteller to unify the audience, so that they all see the events and meaning of the story through the same point-of-view.

(*) I'm using 'access' to synthesise a whole bunch of concepts in TEOP: the idea of 'connecting the story to the audience's world at a broader level', 'equality', and 'looking at the world through the hero's eyes'.

'What is a hero?' is the obvious question. TEOP describes a few qualities that heroes possess; they are :
  • the highest common denominator; they bring out the best in themselves, the listener and the story
  • complexity; heroes surprise us
  • authenticity; heroes are real and charismatic
It's vital to find the right hero for your story, and it's best (says TEOP) if they are real rather than fictional. This is because stories are more than words; they are things that can be lived. Heroes demonstrate how to live the story.

The book provides some pretty reasonable examples of corporate and team stories, such as the behind-the-counter routines at Starbucks (story: "This is how you make a really good cup of coffee"), Harley Davidson (story: freedom and fun through getting on a bike ... I guess), and the US Marine Corp (story: Always faithful). (**)

(**) In fact, the book's description of USMC basic training is definitely worth a read, especially its description of the Crucible on pp 99-101 which synopses a 54-hour test of group performance under combat conditions coupled with myth-building. It is both stranger and more interesting than I'd ever imagined basic to be.

TEOP's advice is to reduce your story down to its central concept. Transform that concept into actions. Then choose a hero who demonstrates how to take those actions.

Criticisms

As with the section on passion, I've found that once I've boiled down TEOP's take on the hero, there's a lot of insightful material that I'd never thought of.

However, some negatives are also becoming obvious. The book is primarily directed toward a corporate audience (referring to them as 'corporate storytellers' as some points); in other words, an audience that is not me. That explains a lot about why some of the examples leave me cold.

The idea of associating each element of persuasion with one of the five classical elements seems a bit spurious. Why is the Hero associated with Earth, for instance? You could make an equally good case for Air, Fire, Water, or ... I think 'Spirit' is the fifth element the authors use.

It's a little unclear how to operationalise some of the stuff TEOP talks about. "Heroes stand their ground," says the book. "They control some territory (whether it be physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual) of value." Interesting stuff, but more something you the author recognise than something you implement.

There are sections (like the one on active listening) that feel like tangents or padding. I can sort of see how they connect with the aim of the book, but I'm not quite sure when to utilise them in the process of creating and telling your story.

Next up, 'The Antagonist', via a chapter of sticky stories (a chapter that I'm not quite fits in to TEOP's five elements schema).
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