I recently watched three different TED Talks, all with unrelated themes. But in each of them, the speaker told a story about his or her life. In this post, I will discuss elements of storytelling that each of them used to make their story successful. (Note: To see these talks, see the link at the end of this post.)
(If you don’t know what TED Talks are, they are talks in which one person speaks, sometimes with visual aids, for about 20 minutes about a certain subject. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, & Design. The talks are meant to be informative and entertaining. Many discuss a certain issue to raise awareness or propose a solution.)
The first talk I watched was given by Mike Rowe, star of the Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs.” His talk was about being completely wrong.
First, he gained credibility by explaining his show. He told how he has worked in all major industries firsthand as an apprentice and has seen (and lived, for a day) these people’s lives. He also gained credibility by referencing classical literary terms – anagnorisis and peripeteia – to explain different feelings he has experienced on set.
The first is one he seeks in every episode. Anagnorisis, in Rowe’s words, means discovery. He finds out what it’s really like being someone else, one of the “average Joe” laborers in the USA.
The second hits Rowe without his seeking it. He experiences peripeteia, which is like a sudden, surprising reversal of circumstances. These peripeteias are realizations that the lives and jobs of these people are very different from his expectations.
These two experiences – anagnorisis and peripeteia – are important to his story because: a) realizing that something is not what you thought it was is intriguing to people, and makes them want to know the truth as opposed to their preconception, and b) it exposes certain lifestyles to people who have no previous experience with them.
Mike Rowe working a dirty job
Finally, he relates his experiences to the current economic crisis that so many people are experiencing. He talks about how society has these preconceived notions that “dirty jobs” are low on the totem pole.
However, through his agnorises and paripeteias, he has found that these jobs are devalued. In his talk, he remarks, “People with dirty jobs are happy.” These people, who didn’t “follow their passion,” are happier than you’d think.
He is speaking to the general public and “talking about the forgotten benefits” of “manual labor, skilled labor.” He is giving people the power to see that, especially in today’s economy, they do not always have to shoot for the stars and follow society’s sparkly idea that you have to be CEO to be happy.
The next speaker I watched was John Hodgman, who talked about his theory that alien beings have infiltrated Earth. Furthermore, he says that he has been targeted multiple times by these extraterrestrials.
The first element that he uses is humor. He begins by talking about a scientist (Enrico Fermi) who, one day, asked his colleagues out of the blue where all the aliens were. This element of surprise draws people in. It makes them laugh and it gives them a sense of anticipation – like, “Where is this going…?”
An alien sketch next to Enrico Fermi’s photo
However, besides his humor, what I think makes his story so successful is that he is able to put together this argument that, taken for what it is, is completely ridiculous. However, using traditional logic, it cannot be disproven.
He tells stories of his past in which odd things happen. He posits that the memories of these odd moments were put into his brain by the aliens (or by the brain’s natural reaction) to block out memories of alien abductions.
While part of your brain is saying, “But… but…” trying to logically disprove his theory that he has had contact with extraterrestrials, the other half of your brain is enjoying these ludicrous, but entertaining, anecdotes.
Finally, I saw a talk by Becky Blanton, in which she tells of a time in her life when she was (voluntarily) homeless, living out of her van.
Becky Blanton and her Rottweiler with the van – their home for a year
The first element of her story is experience. She provides a firsthand account of a lifestyle with which not many people are familiar – homelessness.
Additionally, she draws on emotions from the get-go. She talks about how she became depressed when her father died. This makes people want to listen and hear how she coped. Later, she mentions that she had suicidal thoughts. Something this extreme usually catches the ear of the audience.
Her emotional appeal comes full circle when she finishes with a happy ending. She talks about how she got over her depression, ending by saying, “Hope always, always finds a way.”
These words alone somehow give us hope. And in her talk she explains why they should.
She makes the you think about how you regard yourself. She says, “…negative perceptions of other people can impact our reality if we let it.” She is questioning societal values. In particular, she talks about how homelessness is stigmatized. But she is implying that one should not live by what others think. Rather, we should strive to live up to our own expectations for ourselves.
Finally, she makes you question how you think of, and treat, others. She explains that sometimes where someone lives or where they are in their life does not really explain who they are.
Her talk is a great example of the old rule “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”