Quick Story Lesson: Emotions
Updated: Jul 27
Storytelling is all about emotion. I mean, 'duh', of course it is. Yet I have to mention it because so many people still get this wrong in storytelling. Let's break down why exactly this is, how it should work and what you can do to make better emotional connections in your storytelling.
Without emotional friction a story is not memorable. We relate to each other's feelings, not to facts, figures and functional forms. We remember those less, because we are wired that way. This is the 'why' of storytelling: we are emotional animals and react to shared feelings and journeys. So when you set out to tell a story, you are basically setting out to make an emotional connection. It's that simple.
Emotions are universal Now, emotions are the same around the world for everyone. Human beings have a set of basic feelings that we can recognize from facial expressions, body positions and voice intonations. The emotions themselves are predefined and have been hardwired into our DNA throughout the eons. This means you can recognize any emotion, from any human being, everywhere, instantly, always. That's nature. However, our emotional reactions may vary from person to person in a specific context. Some people find slapstick humor funny, others don't. Some people will cry at a tearjerker movie, others will be annoyed. Culture, personality, upbringing, experience, even certain demographics... they can all influence how you 'see' a story or work of art. And whether you like it or not. That's nurture. So you can never be everything to everybody. Even in an extreme case like Coca Cola, the strongest brand in the world that shares the universal brand story of 'happiness', there will always be a Pepsi. You can however make a very strong emotional connection to a specific group of people. We call this 'empathizing with the audience': understanding their emotions in the context you have chosen. Storytelling needs the right context When storytelling fails, it's usually because of a lack of empathy with a specific audience in a specific context. In other words, you failed to understand what drives certain people (identities or characters) in that particular situation. Or to be even more specific: your audience sees an emotional reaction in others they simply do not - or cannot - relate to. The best example is of a world renowned violinist Joshua Bell who starts to play the most beautiful classical pieces... in the subway. No one responds. This is always put forward as the example of how 'culturally barbaric' people can be. But it's actually the opposite: our violinist is the one who makes the mistake here. Why? Because in the context of the metro, when you are in a rush, the people are grumpy and the lighting is unnatural, classical music works on your nerves. He failed to understand the context in which he was playing. To make sure you hit the right note with your audience you will have to make an effort to understand them and the context both. It's tricky and takes time, effort, research and criticism to get there. But it's definitely worth it.
Rogier van Kralingen