Forget energy, gravity and hydraulics. We all know that roller coasters are powered by human terror and excitement. So what could a storyteller learn at a theme park?
Standing in line for a thrill ride, do you feel thrilled? Or simply terrified? Roller coasters throw us to extreme ends of the emotional spectrum – as of course does life.
If life is one long story – and if story is all about emotion – what can a day at the theme park teach us about storytelling?
1) Create atmosphere
Theme parks use a number of clever tricks to get our adrenaline pumping, long before we step onto the ride.
Strobe lighting, creepy sound effects, loud music, scary video, distinctive odours. A carefully crafted environment suggests something big is about to happen.
Use an anecdote or video clip to create a mood. Match the mood to the theme of your talk. Fun talk? Show a fun clip.
But consider doing the opposite too – perhaps a poignant clip before a light-hearted speech. The sudden switch in atmosphere will disrupt expectations and grab attention.
You don’t need a degree in engineering to design roller coasters, you need a degree in psychology — John C. Allen, legendary roller coaster designer
This is pretty risky. But you’d have no idea this guy was going to talk about internet marketing.
2) Build slowly
Roller coasters often begin with a slow uphill climb. The train is building a pool of energy. A higher climb creates a bigger pool – which means a faster, more hair-raising fall.
But the train isn’t the only thing building energy – the passengers are too. Whether they feel impending doom or excitement, expectations of what’s to come are rising.
Place a number of obstacles in your hero’s path. Spend a large chunk of your allotted time doing this and describe your hero’s feelings at every hurdle.
Drama and tension, combined with emotive language, make us care about the hero of the story. And because we care, we pay attention.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel — Maya Angelou
3) Dive in
When the first climb is complete, the train is thrown into a sudden and rapid descent. The world’s fastest roller coaster reaches a top speed of just over 149mph. That’s fast.
Whether passengers scream ‘faster!’ or pray for mercy, they’re in the thick of the action now and it won’t get much better – or worse – than this.
Unleash the energy you’ve been building – and don’t be gentle. Think about the structure of your story as one long rise with a rapid fall. If the fall isn’t dramatic, what’s the point?
Jump into the action. Increase the tempo, inject energy and make it memorable.
4) Be brief
Once it shoots down the first slope, the train’s energy store empties fast. It’ll grind to a halt soon unless it rises again or hurtles quickly to the end.
Keep this John C.Allen quote in mind and remember that highs and lows make us feel – not gentle bends and curves.
The Mister Twister in Denver Colorado was originally designed as a figure eight with a lot of curves. However, in the first year it turned out to be a dud. And this is the one reason why I say that curves do not do anything for people. So we added on to the original coaster, which was 72ft high, went up 98ft 6 inches.
Don’t make your hero repeatedly overcome the same obstacle – skip to the next challenge or move quickly to the end of your story.
Tony Robbins says his shortest seminar lasts 50 hours. How then does he manage a 20 minute Ted talk? Check out his pace – incredible.
5) Give a souvenir
The average roller coaster ride lasts roughly 2 minutes. But whether it feels like 2 minutes or 2 years depends on the individual.
Some will walk away feeling sick as a dog. Others will be pumped and ready to go again. Either way, they won’t forget the ride in a hurry.
Theme parks let us buy a souvenir photo to remind us of our experience. What souvenir are you giving away?
Your most important souvenir is your message. What great insight have you shared? Summarise your message clearly as your sign-off.
The Great American Scream Machine is a very fast ride, very high drops, and comes into the brakes on a 45 radius curve, which really ends up the ride with a lot of screams — John C. Allen
Now, imagine you’re in this audience. Are you going to forget David’s message any time soon? Of course you’re not – because you’re the best.
Climbing the mountain
The techniques mentioned in this post are a summary of the mountain storytelling technique.
Find out more about this approach in Ffion’s post 8 Classic storytelling techniques for engaging presentations.
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