Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What you miss when you mock the role of fairy tales in public speaking

When I'm training a group on the public speaking "rule of three," the rationale for using three key points or chunks of information, I can point to a variety of sources to confirm that organizing your talk into three points or categories makes it easier for the speaker and the audience to remember. Neuroscience tells us that our brains like, look for and remember patterns, particularly in threes. That's because we recall three things most readily in our working memory, which is why phone numbers are grouped into three chunks of numbers. But I like to take my trainees back to the source, the oral storytelling tradition, where people entertained one another by telling stories long before language was written down. And that's when the Three Little Pigs make their entrance.

That's because fairy tales are just the written-down capture of the stories from that long-ago era of storytelling. You can use just the concept of three points to echo the fairy tales, or put them to work as analogies or metaphors to organize your presentation.

I just did a training in which the participants more or less roundly rejected this concept, even though there's plenty of experience and research behind it. I heard snorts of derision, it must be said. None of these folk- and fairy-tales for them. But if you're tempted to mock the role of the fairy tale in public speaking, you're going to miss a wide range of useful tools that you can deploy in your next presentation or speech. Many of them are noted in this On Being interview with Maria Tatar, the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, where she also chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology. It's a wonderful listen, and I caught several speaking tools in the interview that are not easy for a good public speaker to dismiss:
  • They're a proven way to get audiences to talk about your points:  In the interview, Tatar says, again and again, that fairy tales "get us to talk about things," even difficult or disturbing things. In your presentations, maybe your cause seems like a lost one, or you want your listeners to consider the possibilities of as-yet incomplete research. Tatar notes that the "once upon a time" approach of the fairy tale "says this is not the here and now. You can let your imagination run wild. You can go in places that you'd be scared to go otherwise. You can say things that you're afraid to talk about." All useful tools for speakers who want to give audiences new ideas and leave them discussing your talks.
  • They're recognizable (and proven) the world over: While there are cultural tweaks and changes to these tales, they occur in the history of diverse nations and cultures all over the world--so if you are speaking to an international audience, they're more likely to resonate. Tatar notes that "You can find a 'Little Red Riding Hood' in 17th-century China, there's a version. The girl doesn't have a red riding hood, but she behaves very much like the girl in the woods."
  • The Brothers Grimm were writing for adults--and it was a scholarly effort: Tatar notes that the Grimms were attempting to save and record what they felt was a disappearing tradition of oral storytelling, and never imagined these would become easily dismissed children's stories. She says, "They wrote to others scholars, writers, and then they listened. They listened to the stories in their own milieu, getting the stories, grabbing them from wherever they found them, putting them into this volume, and discovering that they were actually selling copies of this book. That parents were reading the stories to children...It was not part of their plan."
  • We're retelling these ancient fairy tales in some of society's most successful storytelling efforts, from the Kardashians and makeover programs on reality television to romantic or adventure movies ranging from Star Wars and Star Trek to Pretty Woman and the more overt TV series Grimm, Game of Thrones and Once Upon a Time. You don't need to emulate those examples, per se, but they're certainly successful proof that that format works.
  • If you're not great at storytelling, these are ready-made options: In the uncut interview, for which there's no transcript, Tatar confesses that she herself isn't great at making up stories so, with her children, "I relied on the great storytellers." If that's the case for you, adapting a fairy tale for your talk can give you a proven structure that's easy for you to use and easy for your audience to grasp. And if you're a good storyteller in your own right, it might be fun to compare your art to those of the masters.
If you want a deeper-than-surface dive into using fairy tales and their structure to aid your next speech, The Annotated Brothers Grimm (The Bicentennial Edition) and a broader collection, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, both edited by Tatar, will help serve as reference points for the stories, though Tatar cautions against calling any of them "the originals," since we'll never know the true origin of these stories from the oral canon. Tatar's book, Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood, is a wonderful aid to understanding why these fairy tales are so powerful, how they strike a balance between beauty and horrific detail, and what having both things in the story accomplishes for the storyteller and the reader or listener. You'll learn why fairy tales are so captivating, not only in childhood, but to your likely listeners today.

For thorough discussions of the rule of three in oratory and public speaking, check out a chapter on the rule of three in Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, which looks at subtle and overt uses of the rule of three that you may want to borrow in your storytelling. Max Atkinson's Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations notes the use of the rule of three in presentations and in jokes, and his harder-to-find Our Masters' Voices: The Language and Body-language of Politics breaks down famous speakers' three-part phrases and how they are used to generate applause.

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