In the 1989 movie Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams, playing the iconoclastic English teacher John Keating, dismisses the notion that you can judge the perfection of a poem mathematically by plotting how artfully it employs meter, rhyme, and metaphor against how important the subject is. Rather than have his students think they could graph the relative merits of, say, a Shakespeare sonnet against a poem by Alan Ginsberg, he has them rip up their textbooks. Data can’t tell us anything about stories, he’s saying, as pages of Understanding Poetry, by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D., fly all over the room.
Businesspeople are often advised to turn their data into stories to make them more persuasive. And that is certainly good advice. But they are given precious few tools to help them do that. It turns out though, John Keating notwithstanding, that graphs can be remarkably useful in demonstrating the mechanics underpinning an effective story. One person who’d given this a lot of thought was novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a real-life literary iconoclast if there ever was one.
Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism recently shed a spotlight on Vonnegut’s story graphs in its publication Nieman Storyboard (a wonderful resource on the art of storytelling in itself). Vonnegut devoted his master’s thesis at the University of Chicago to studying the shapes of stories. The thesis was rejected (apparently, Vonnegut’s advisors were of the John Keating school of literary criticism). But his ideas are thriving online in various storytelling tutorials. Nieman offers up Vonnegut’s original presentation, now on YouTube, in which he graphs some of the most basic story structures and explains how they work.
“There’s no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers,” Vonnegut begins. First up is one he calls Man in a Hole. “It needn’t be a man, and he needn’t fall into a hole,” he adds, for the metaphorically challenged among us. “That’s just an easy way to remember it.”
In the tradition of J. Evans Pritchard, he starts by drawing the vertical Good Fortune/Ill Fortune (or G-I) axis, with “sickness and poverty” at the bottom and “wealth and boisterous good health” at the top. At the midpoint, he draws his x axis – B (for beginning) to E (for electricity). He’s joking of course, but he also wants to underscore the point that this is an exercise in relativity, since it’s the shape of the curve that matters, not the specific data points.
Then he places his chalk on the y axis a bit above the midpoint (“Why start with a depressing person?” he quips), draws a sine wave dropping down toward the bottom and rising up again: Somebody gets into trouble and gets out of it. “People love that story,” he says. “They never get sick of it!” (This is doubly obvious is when you draw the business parallel by substituting a term like business, strategy, revenue, IT, HR, or whatever for the word somebody).
He goes on to graph Boy Meets Girl, starting right at the midpoint of the y axis – “an average person on an average day, not expecting anything.” He draws a double sine wave rising up and then down and then up again. “Something wonderful happens, Oh hell. Got it back again” In business terms, the classic turnaround story (IBM comes to my mind here, and more than once).
The next one is more complicated, he warns. Despite what he’s just said, he starts at the bottom and stays there—a wretched person, a little girl, no less, has lost her mother and her father has married again to a horrible woman. The curve hovers at the bottom. A fairy godmother arrives, bestowing much-needed resources (shoes, a dress, mascara). With each gift, the line goes up incrementally, like a bar graph. The girl goes to a dance. The clock strikes 12:00. The resources dry up. The line drops almost straight down, but not all the way back (she has those memories, and maybe some IP or a valuable customer base). The prince finds her, the shoe fits. Facebook buys your start-up, the curve shoots up as you achieve off-scale happiness.
It so happens, he says, that this Cinderella story is “the most popular story in our Western civilization. Every time it’s retold somebody makes another million dollars. You’re welcome to do it.” Well, sure…
Here are all three stories, conveniently plotted on a single graph:
But watch the video (it’s less than five minutes long), and two things become apparent. The first is certainly that so many successful business stories follow patterns embedded in Western civilization’s most primal literary conventions. It’s easy to see why marshalling data to tell one of these kinds of stories – rags turning into riches, mistakes rectified, challenges overcome, the right resources and the right contacts saving the day — would be so compelling. And there’s probably an argument here for reading more fiction, to give John Keating his due.
The second is that Vonnegut’s delivery matters as much as his ideas. His timing is perfect. His language is concrete and unexpected. He’s showing you the simplicity that underlies apparent complexity – that’s what data are so good at doing. But he’s just as concerned with making sure you’re paying attention — since no one is persuaded by something they don’t remember.