This is part of The Writing Playground series, where we use TED Talks as a playground to learn how to make our writing (that’s right: writing!) more impactful. To make the most of this article, watch Brené Brown’s TED Talk before reading on.
Brené Brown doesn’t need an introduction. Even if you know little about her, chances are you’ve seen her TED talk. And if you have, chances are it has made an impact. Most people cannot stay indifferent to Brené’s ideas and how she articulates them in this talk. And there are some pretty good reasons why this is the case. First, this text deals with a deep (some would say basic) human experience. The topic itself, let alone the examples Brené uses, is part of the firsthand experience of most people. We see ourselves in it; therefore, it resonates and stays with us.
But this text does much more than merely talk about something we can personally connect to. Had Brené decided to talk about nothing more than the bottom line, this talk would probably be less engaging. Instead, Brené, being a skilled storyteller, has crafted a story that describes an evolution way before it articulates the bottom line.
Brené’s text includes multiple evolution arcs, making it anything but static. At any point throughout this text, we are in a transition between two states; the text and we, with it, are constantly moving forward. At the same time, because the multiple evolutionary paths are interwound, we keep jumping between them, creating even stronger dynamics.
The first evolutionary arc is launched right at the outset of the text and takes us up to the last couple of words. Brené starts with what seems like an anecdotal story, apparently unrelated to the subject of the talk. But as she describes the dialog in that story, she uses the phrase “the academic insecure part of me.” This hints at what is to come as it exposes some of Brené’s innermost thoughts and fears. She is vulnerable, demonstrating the topic of the talk instead of articulating it explicitly. But then, in the last seconds of the talk, instead of just saying “thank you,” as most speakers do, she concludes with the statement: “That’s all I have.” It is a statement of self-acceptance that replaces the insecurity she started with: this is who I am, and I am sharing that with you at this stage.
What happens in the 20 minutes between these two statements is a summary of the personal evolution Brené has experienced, and she deliberately takes us, the audience, with her on this journey. In parallel, Brené describes the evolution of her academic work and how she reached the groundbreaking conclusions of her thesis. These two arcs are woven together; they affect one another, and their dynamics clarify and amplify her story.
The way Brené constructed this text is, of course, intentional. Instead of starting with the bottom line, she decided to describe her personal and professional evolution. Having read and listened to Brené’s other texts, I can safely say she could have easily filled these 20 minutes with “the bottom line.” She could have talked about the conclusions of her thesis, and it would be anything but boring. And yet, she decided to spend most of the time of this talk on the journey — on the evolution — and leave only a couple of minutes to the non-trivial conclusions of her research.
Evolution is a powerful mechanism when used in a text. Let’s understand why.
Our brain is wired for dynamics. Movement captures our attention. Change captures our attention. The evolutionary reasons are obvious, and even though they have nothing to do with consuming content, they affect how we listen, watch, and read the content we are exposed to. As important as they may be, static facts and statements are less captivating. They have their place in the text, but you will likely lose your audience in the first five minutes if you try to craft a 20-minute talk based solely on static information.
The hype around storytelling revolves mainly around triggering emotions, and Brené’s text uses that trait, too. But at a more fundamental level, stories are always about dynamics. The definition of a story is the description of something that happened — a chain of events. Now, imagine a chain of events that does not impact how the character feels, what she realizes, and how she understands the world. It might still be a story, but probably not an interesting one. We are wired for dynamics, but when we use that at multiple levels — when we describe an evolution — our stories become significantly more effective.
When the story we tell is built on an evolutionary arc, the audience actively participates in it whether they want to or not. A compelling evolutionary story invites the audience to guess what happens next, and the great part is that we feel rewarded whether we manage to guess it or are caught by surprise. The investment of walking through the personal and professional evolution in Brené’s text pays off big time as it resonates with us emotionally and makes the text more memorable.
Making a Stronger Case
Starting with (or settling with) the bottom line can sound preachy regardless of your good intentions. Your text becomes much more effective when your audience can see themselves in the story, somewhere along the evolutionary arc.
As I hear Brené’s story and how her thoughts (and feelings) have evolved, I can easily find myself in that story. Much more so than if she had directly dropped the bottom line on us. At the beginning of the text, I am still not where she is. She has spent years researching and reflecting to form her insights, and we are simply lightyears behind. The best way to bring us closer to Brené and where she wants us to be is by taking us with her on this journey (or at least a short version of it).
Using evolution as the story’s core helps the audience, even if they don’t see themselves in the text. It allows us to take one logical step at a time instead of jumping directly to a conclusion that seems radical given what we don’t know at the beginning of the talk. Like Brené, we weren’t born with these insights; most of us won’t find them trivial. The path that Brené paves in her text helps us reach the conclusion gradually. We are evolving, too, as the text progresses.
Creating a Trajectory
One of the strongest traits of using evolution in your text is that it creates a trajectory your audience can continue to evolve. When the evolutionary arc is well-crafted, the audience can use it to portray the future, or at least the next couple of steps, without us needing to articulate it explicitly.
That’s the beauty of the evolution arc, and that is why it is more effective than random or hectic movement in storytelling: we naturally want to extend it, and when done right, we intuitively know how to do so. It makes us, the audience, the owners of what follows.
It is often said that good content should take the audience from Point A to Point B. Evolution does much more than that. It sets the audience on a course, portraying the destination but allowing them to continue evolving the ideas long after consuming the content. In that sense, the text continues to live in our minds; it continues to affect us. Sometimes, it will affect our actions. Eventually, that is what anyone who writes and talks to an audience desires.