How Storytelling Can Fix a Broken Neck

By Phil Butler

I am an expert on social media, PR, and technology, and what I have to share with you can rocket boost your firm’s ROI!

Not exactly a gripping introduction, now is it? If I may, please allow me another attempt.

As an editor and writer, I was so impressed watching Joshua Prager give a TED talk the other day; I wanted to prepare a post worthy of not only my own skill, but of being published before TED Weekends readers as well. Most of all, I want to illustrate why storytelling is today the most powerful art any of us can use to influence other people.

Let me give you a great example of storytelling, which illustrates concretely the anatomy of any convincing storyline, or how character, purpose, conflict, and resolution play out to make for influential communications. Hopefully, before you’re done reading, you’ll take your valuable time to watch this mesmerizing talk by Prager.

Character — Any Story’s Hero

Joshua Prager, the award-winning journalist whose neck was actually broken, and who inspired this discourse you are reading, is one of those rare speakers capable of holding an audience spellbound. But, what’s even more important for you, the reader, is the fact that having a fantastic story, like the one of Prager overcoming a broken neck, is not nearly as important as deciding to “share” the story. As the talented speaker puts it, “who we are is not about what happens to us, but who we are is about how we respond to what happens to us.”

Now as marketing people, what so often escapes us in our quest for “once upon a time” salesmanship is the preparation needed to craft a successful story. Take the title of Prager’s TED moment; “Joshua Prager: In search of the man who broke my neck.” Brilliant, isn’t it? How, you ask? Well, even before the audience has set foot in the auditorium, with a single curious statement, Joshua Prager has forged interest, the inquisition, even suggested a bit of soliloquy, wherein comedy or satire may be afoot. Actually, the title is so brilliant, it tells you at once Josh Prager’s story, as well as “who” the hero of the story you are about to hear is.

Once we understand the “character” of a narrative, it’s far easier to make the journey into ambition or goals, then to understand the conflicts and friction along the way, and finally to take the big step with the storyteller into resolution. Of course the logic of solving problems, then becomes justification for action, and anyone’s reason (or ROI) when all is said and done. So the “character”, in any case, is the first and most important component of storytelling.

For businesses, cementing an inclination for buying is best done using such characters. A good way of illustrating this is to imagine anyone buying, Nike shoes for instance, just because they “understand” Nike the company. Without visions of Michael Jordan, and images of a kid practicing hoops integrated into a marketing schema, Nikes are just sneakers like any other sneakers. Beyond understanding a journey, characters are part of what makes them memorable.

Ambitious Goals

The TEDTalk that introduced me to Prager is a perfectly transparent window into the strategy (or gift) of influential speaking, into dynamic and convincing communications.

As anyone knows, the “art” of storytelling is as old as society itself. Even before the written word, we memorized and related all that happened around us, passed it on in verbal tradition, and crafted elaborate cultural dogma and dance to reveal the tale of our existence. Also, as Prager shows in his “In search of the man who broke my neck,” influencing people around a campfire or in the halls of the Congress is about meticulous revelation — the science of truth, if I may.

From his title, to the frailty (and strength) of his demeanor, Prager understands something crucial about his audience. Having your neck broken, after all, is something few can identify with, and everyone is horrified by. The auto accident in Israel that left young Joshua Prager near dead and nearly completely paralyzed, transformative as it was, is used ingeniously to grip us… A frail man walks on stage, the onlooker is engaged instantly. We’ve been prepared to be convinced, even beforehand by the brilliant title of the story, you see. But the compelling question that so obviously “there” for the audience, is oh so much more compelling with a reason, with the “why” of hunting down a neck breaker.

The “trigger” effect of “Joshua Prager: In search of the man who broke my neck,” is hidden for a reason initially. Whether the speaker intends some odyssey of retribution, or proposes a tale of medical wonderment, or some pathway to the power of God is purposefully teasing. But once it’s revealed simple closure is sought, even an apology, anyone in the audience who has been hurt is interested. The man just wants an apology, he just wants more finality to the pain.

Our Shared Struggle

The moment Joshua Prager walks onto the TED stage anyone with eyes can see the conflict in life, it shines metallically on the speaker like a suit of armor. Without so much as a respite of warmup humor the speaker holds the audience spellbound as he launches into the narrative of the destruction of his body. In his recounting of events leading up to and after his life altering accident, the lyricist has crafted simply, factual, and precise words that transform what could be a boring narrative, into something very profound. And he carries his audience along for a ride to find his nemesis, or more precisely, the irresponsible truck driver who tumbled his world years before.

It’s here the conflicts; the epic struggle looms heavily over Prager and the audience. questions. “Will this neck breaker throttle me, hug me, disdain me, welcome his brother, or what? In his quest to find a “human in a haystack” Prager, like any of us, must forego a million doubts to find his answers, his conclusion. For the “would be” storytelling sellers out there, it’s here Michael Jordan as a striving kid shoots free throws in the rain, right here where your audience starts identifying, believing, wanting more of your story.

Climax, Resolution, Sold

The story you, me, and Joshua Prager share in sharing his life changing experience is a lot more profound than most us would like to admit. Not only does the storyteller transform our thought process in his search for closure, his tale rekindles in us what each of us already knows about struggle. Prager empowers the listener more profoundly than any Mt. Everest of empirical data, more than 10,000 rocket scientists demonstrating launches coolly, exactingly, demonstrably accurately — what a great storyteller does it bridge the gap between proof and belief — between understanding and knowing.

Does Prager get his apology? The answer is decidedly, no. What the speaker does share though is something far more powerful, far more valuable, and imminently more useful for all of us. Within a short speech, however long by web surfer standards, a glistening value can be gleaned. More concretely real than any apologetic climax could have ever been, the human truth of attitude and transcendence revealed in this story galvanized for the listener everything any of us ever knew about being human. The character of this hero, the role conflict played in his life, the emotional connection he shares with us, and the ultimate resolution of these tensions, makes us feel better about our own humanity.

And for storytelling marketers out there reading? Joshua Prager is that salesman that could sell ice cubes to Eskimos you heard about. And even with the enthralling truth of frozen water. Now there’s how storytelling can fix a broken neck, and a return on investment (ROI) even the most stoic marketing guru can grasp.