We all know that humans love stories. That’s why we love to go to the movies, or can’t wait to pick up the next book in our favorite series, or sit for hours with family in the living room recalling funny memories from the past. Stories are connective for us. Narratives link us together and help us make sense of our human experience.
Speakers who tell stories can move and affect their audiences in very powerful ways. But it’s not just any story that moves us. Humans actually respond to very specific narrative plotlines. A few months ago, we covered one popular narrative structure called Freytag’s Pyramid. Today, we are going to look at another one.
This structure is one that George Monbiot identified in his popular TED talk earlier this year. Here’s what he says:
“There is one basic plot which turns out to be tremendously powerful, and I call this the restoration story. It goes as follows. Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. But the hero will revolt against this disorder, fight those powerful forces, against the odds overthrow them and restore harmony to the land.”
Let’s dissect the four specific movements in Monbiot’s structure using his own words. In doing so, we’ll be able to see how this specific narrative design could work for nearly every kind of presentation.
Something is wrong. This sets up the need for change. It introduces a problem. It challenges the status quo. This step in the narrative is crucial. Something has to be amiss before we embrace a new narrative that fixes everything.
Many speakers are so interested with presenting their solution, they forget to convince the audience that there’s a problem. They skip right past it to talk about their new ideas, their solution. But Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter tells us humans have many reasons for resisting change. For example, they might have excess uncertainty or fear a loss of control. When we present, we have to dig into what Monbiot terms the “disorder” so that we establish a need for change.
This step dives deeper into the problem by exploring who or what has caused it. It digs in to the specifics of what needs to change. We know already that humans tend to cling to the status quo unless they are shown that there is a better path forward. In the first step, we have to tell our audiences what is wrong. In this second movement, we identify the “powerful and nefarious forces” by telling them why the disorder exists and who is responsible.
Great speakers will also use this second part of the restoration story to relate the disorder, the problem, directly to their specific audience members. If the problem remains out there, in a land far, far away, the audience doesn’t have to worry about it. So we need to remind the audience they are inhabitants of this land and that people they love and care about are inhabitants of this land, the one in which disorder exists. If we do that, the problem can’t be ignored; it becomes personal.
Here’s where we start to cover the solution in the presentation. We restore hope to the land. In a presentation, “the hero” can take many shapes or forms. It might be you, the speaker. Or perhaps your company or the product you offer. It could be the audience and what they can contribute, specifically in the fundraising campaigns or presentations aimed at producing volunteers.
At any rate, the speaker needs to clearly outline who the hero is, how he/she/it will fight the problem, and how victory is possible. Just as the audience will not assume that there is a problem, they also will not assume that your solution is the best, or that restoration is possible. We, as speakers, must bear the burden of proof, convincing our audiences that the battle is worth it.
In this step, we finally help the audience picture a better tomorrow. We help them to see how the problem can be overcome with our solution. This is the familiar happy ending we long for at the end of every narrative. The audience members have followed this narrative from the beginning. Now they will reap the rewards of good news at the end.
It can be tempting to be idealistic in this stage of the presentation, but studies show that audience members want honesty from speakers, and we have a strong unconscious and intuitive ability to detect a lie. So it’s best in this final stage of the presentation to celebrate the restoration in as much as it is real and sustainable. Don’t blow it out of proportion to manipulate the audience. Be honest and open so that the audience continues to trust your narrative.
This simple, four-step structure can be adapted to work for nearly any presentation. Try using Monbiot’s restoration story structure and see how your audience responds. It’s a familiar narrative that is bound to produce results.
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