Great storytelling is surprising. When we watch an excellent movie, see a compelling play, or read a great book, the best ones have events that we don't see coming. In fact, one of my favorite reactions to anything I watch, listen to, or read is, "WHAT?! That came out of nowhere!"
When you use a well-told story to lead an audience towards a big reveal in your presentation, you help them question their own assumptions; especially useful if you're presenting for an audience who might not be on your side. Storytelling not only gets you closer to your audience and your goals for them, but also gives you a means to build intrigue for an important revelation.
In order to bring the element of surprise to your business storytelling, there are a few steps you can follow to build something your audience will never see coming. Have you tried any of the following? If not, give these a go during your story development:
1. Lean into opposites: Just like when a character you're sure is the villain turns out to save the day, OR when the person you least suspect turns out to be the guilty party, leaning into opposites helps obscure the obvious in a story. If your goal is to be surprising, don't be afraid to highlight something unusual in the events.
Here's an example: If you're telling a story about perseverance, remember to highlight how many times failure occurred. Of course, perseverance is about overcoming obstacles, and if you're the perfect hero all along the way, your audience will know exactly where you're going.
2. Go into specific, logical detail that gets disrupted by the unexpected: Which is more interesting?:
"Let me tell you the story about the time my car was stolen from the grocery store."
"I drove to Shaw's, I bought vegetables and a steak for dinner, I loaded up my cart to leave, and when I walked back into the parking lot, my car had completely disappeared."
There are a few problems with the first example. To begin with, you're asking permission to tell your story by saying, "Let me tell you the story about..." (You can read more about why that's an issue HERE.) Secondly, you're not building suspense or surprise — you're telling your audience EXACTLY what's about to happen, before it happens! On the other hand, when you use very specific details to lead people along a path, you're creating interest and expectation, and painting a very specific picture for your listeners to latch on to.
The more specific the details leading up to the surprise, the less your audience will see it coming.
3. Be aware of how the characters in your story will appear to others: This is a great way to bring in something surprising. If your story is about you and your struggles in a past job, step away from your story and try and imagine how your audience might see you as a "character". Then ask yourself, "Is there something that I did during this story that was completely out of character?" That's interesting and exciting. Be bold and share it.
Just like in the theatre, any character (even if it's you!) that's all good or all bad isn't as interesting as one that's complex.
4. When it comes to delivery, pause!: The power of pause is a great way to keep your audience on the hook. Using the example above, you could deliver that content many ways, but two great ones would be:
"I drove to Shaw's, I bought vegetables and steak for dinner, I loaded up my cart to leave, and when I walked back into the parking lot, [PAUSE...] my car had completely disappeared."
"I drove to Shaw's, I bought vegetables and steak for dinner, I loaded up my cart to leave, and when I walked back into the parking lot, my car had completely disappeared. [PAUSE...] I couldn't believe it."
Merely telling a story in a presentation is going to create more interest and connection for your audience. But when you bring the element of surprise to your telling, you deepen the potential for engagement with your content. Don't be afraid to make it interesting!