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The Impact of Opening Cues In Storytelling

Have you ever noticed that there are certain phrases that telegraph expectations with a minimum of words?  (“Greetings from the IRS.”)  These are opening cues.

They are especially present in storytelling.  When certain phrases are heard, the listener begins filling-in-the-blanks before much of the story unfolds.  This can either work in your favor or against you, so it is good to be aware of them.

Here are some of the most common, along with typical reactions I have seen:

  • Once Upon A Time – This is very traditional.  When an audience hears these words, they are anticipating a story that might be adventurous or magical, but that will definitely be safe and have a happy, satisfying ending.
  • I shouldn’t be telling you this… - Your audience will anticipate gossip or a juicy secret.  As human beings, we tend to be hardwired to want to hear more in this situation.  It is an immediate attention-getter.
  • These two guys walk into a bar. - …Or virtually any variation of people and a location.  Your audience is primed to hear a joke.  …Just be aware that they are also primed to find it funny.  If they don’t, they will wonder why YOU found it funny enough to share.  They may question your credibility.
  • When I was a child… - Your audience will be anticipating a comparison story between “then” and “now.”  Depending on the age group listening, they will also anticipate a lecture (if they are much younger than you) or a nostalgic memory (if they are close in age to yourself).  You’ll recognize the expectation from either the glazed eyes or the warm smiles.
  • I’ve seen a lot of strange things, but this one takes the prize. – This statement, or some variation of it, has much the same listening impact as the gossip opening.  It sounds mysterious and intriguing.  People will be very curious.  It is especially important to fulfill the expectations for this one.  If you don’t, you will lose their attention very quickly.

There are many, many more.  Being aware of them will help you set exactly the right tone for your story.

One last item before I leave this topic.  You can also use this principle in reverse, turning around the expectations.  Just be aware that there will be a “Huh?  What is this?” moment during which you won’t be heard.  If you are employing that tactic, it is a very good idea to pause long enough to let the mind process what has just been heard.

Here’s an example:

Once Upon A Time, 56-year-old Arthur Pym lost his job of 23-years and seriously contemplated suicide.

(Pause.  Let this sink in.  Slowly and silently count to three or four before continuing.)

One caveat:  Because audiences are expecting a “happy ending” from the opening cue, they will be much more appreciative…and will remember the story much longer…if it has one for Mr. Pym.  (In short, they will forgive your intended transgression.)

Next time, I’d like to respond to a question I received about how a person can be trained to become an effective storyteller.  I hope you’ll join me.

Thanks for reading!