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The Crucial Inciting Incident

A crucial element often missing from corporate storytelling is the inciting incident.  I say “crucial” because in order for a story to be remembered, it must engage the emotions.  The inciting incident grabs attention and immediately engages the listener.

In the interest of time, many corporate storytellers opt to use either vignettes or anecdotes.  There is certainly nothing wrong with this.  I often use them to illustrate a point.  It is important to remember, though, that they tend to create a “just in time” image and won’t leave a lasting impression.

Let me explain…

A vignette is defined as a small, graceful literary sketch.  Whenever I think of the term, I think of an artist sketching a quick illustration to show what is happening, not unlike a storyboard frame for a movie’s preproduction.

With a vignette, you are drawing an image in the listener’s mind.  This image helps your audience to understand your point more quickly and easily.

For instance, I could mention the name of a traditional food from another culture such as kimchi.  This is a fermented dish that is served with many Korean meals. 

If I described the preparation with the most common ingredients in the American version (napa cabbage, radish, scallion or cucumber), you may not have an exact picture, but you would know more than you did when you just heard the name.  If I include other foods that it may support, such as a form of barbequed spare ribs, a remembered emotion connected with “taste” may kick in. 

Most listeners would be unlikely to have a strong emotional response other than possibly hunger.  They will, however, have a better idea of my point of reference.

An anecdote is defined as a short account of an event.  “One day, while walking down the street, James discovered a $100 bill.  …It was from Sears and it was 10-days overdue.”

By including an unexpected twist…the $100 bill being a demand for payment rather than the discovery of currency…I catch the attention of my audience and may even generate some chuckles among them.  A week from now, though, the likelihood that anyone will remember the tale is very, very slim.  There is very little emotion tied with it.

Vignettes and anecdotes are tremendously useful to corporate storytellers to help assure that everyone in the audience has a similar understanding.  If we don’t have a similar image in mind, the presenter can inadvertently cause confusion.

In storytelling, even in brief story illustrations, there is an emotional response within the audience.  Unless there is something about the speaker to generate that strong emotion by mere presence, then that trigger will be the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is an event that immediately draws attention, and is often followed a strong desire to find out what happened next.  Often, listeners will imagine themselves in the situation and begin to wonder what they would do.  When that occurs, the involvement is locked.

A common error is in thinking that it takes a long time to build to that level of interest.  “I have to lay down the groundwork, introduce the characters, generate some empathy, and THEN go into the interesting narrative.”

Not at all.  Skillful storytellers can capture that interest within the first sentence.  Keep in mind that your audience is primed to be entertained.  They want your presentation to involve them.  As such, they are more than willing to meet you halfway.

Here’s a great example.  It is one of those wonderful TED Talks which, in this case, will only take 5-minutes of your time.  The speaker is Ric Elias.  His topic is “3 Things I Learned While My Plane Crashed.”  Naturally, you would anticipate that his talk will be riveting…and I believe it is.

Yet, take a look at his first sentence…a dramatic presentation of an inciting incident.  “Imagine a big explosion as you climb to 3,000-feet.”  Does he have your attention?  He had mine.

Here is his remarkable story:  http://www.ted.com/talks/ric_elias.html.

Thank you for reading.