How to effectively open with a story
When I’m asked to give feedback on data communications—presentations, articles, or long-form data stories—there’s one suggestion I find myself giving most often. I encourage people to reconsider their hooks.
Engaging openings are one of the most underrated elements of rhetoric. We often don’t plan them out enough and miss the opportunity to engage our audience right off the bat. A few months ago, I shared some ideas for effective openings that are worth digging deeper into. This week, we’ll learn from a brilliant example that uses a story as a hook.
It’s the introduction sequence to the first episode on Leonardo da Vinci on the How to Take Over the World podcast. I’ll let you read it first and we’ll then dissect what makes it so effective.
It’s the 1470s, and Leonardo da Vinci is hiking alone in the hills in Central Italy when he chances upon an enormous cave. It’s unmarked, and there are no signs of human habitation anywhere. It’s apparently undiscovered. He later wrote in his journal what he felt at the time: “Suddenly there arose in me two contrary emotions: fear and desire. Fear of the threatening dark cave and desire to see whether there were any marvelous things within.” He stands in front of the cave for a long time, bending back and forth to see if he can make out even a faint outline of something inside, but it’s so dark, he can’t see anything. He’s got a decision to make: does he risk going into the cave and seeing what’s inside, or does he continue on with his day? But he already knows what he’ll choose, because Leonardo da Vinci always chooses satisfying his curiosity over everything else. He enters the cave, and the reward for following that curiosity is that he discovers in the walls a fossilised skeleton of a whale.
The historian Kenneth Clark calls da Vinci the most relentlessly curious man in history. <…> I think anyone can learn how to be more curious by learning from his example. And curiosity, as it turns out, is a superpower. Da Vinci is highly regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time, if not the greatest. <…> He was also a shockingly insightful and mature scientist <…> and a tinkerer, an amateur inventor who came up with a number of useful inventions and laid the groundwork for many more. Steve Jobs said of da Vinci: “He saw beauty in both art and engineering and his ability to combine them is what made him a genius.” We hear a lot about the power of standing at the intersection of art and science, and how that’s where innovation comes from. But few people actually do it. Da Vinci did. And he did it like no one before and no one since.
So this is an episode on how to actually do it: how to combine art and science and become a great innovator.
Are you now intrigued to listen to the full podcast? I bet you are. I was definitely hyped up after this introduction. So what makes this opening great, and how can you employ the technique yourself?
This story hook is effective for three reasons:
It’s engaging. How often do we hear a simple “Hi, I’m this and that, and this is what this podcast (or conference talk or presentation at work) is about”? Too often, if you ask me. Although I’m used to the podcast, I was still caught off guard. In a good way. I was intrigued right away and wanted to find out what this story had to do with anything.
It’s relevant. Opening with a story is great, but it has to be linked to your core message. The aim of this story—as told by Ben Wilson, the producer of the podcast—is to illustrate how curious da Vinci was because that’s the throughline of the episode (and da Vinci’s life, really). You may forget some details from his biography, but you won’t forget the story. And as the story closes, you’re led to the promise of the podcast: to learn how to be more curious and a better innovator. (If you’ve never heard of promises in storytelling, check out this brilliant piece by Nathan Baugh.)
It’s concise. We’re often tempted to give all the details to a story so that it feels complete and full of emotion. That’s not always a good thing. Stories are great as long as they’re kept concise and to the point. Remember, they’re an illustration, not your core content. The above story may seem a little long as I took it out of context, but it really isn’t. It’s a 2-minute opening for a 40-minute-long podcast episode or about 5% of the total. If you wonder how long your own opening tale should be, 5% is a good ratio to aim for.
Ok, so now what? How can you use this in your own work?
You can integrate a short story in any of the following instances:
a presentation at work;
a conference talk;
a written PowerPoint or PDF deck;
a written journalistic story;
an article or any other piece of content you write.
If you’re not used to it, you might feel uncomfortable at first, but trust me, it will be worth it!
Use stories but do so wisely. Make them engaging, relevant and concise. And don’t forget to refer back to them at some point!
Thank you for reading The Plot 🛖
See you next week,
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