Engagement Through Storytelling and Humor

“Engagement Through Storytelling and Humor” ~Aidan Park, GP Entertainment, tim@gpentertainment.com

Connection with your audience is a key component in order for an advisor, teacher, or individual to achieve a level of success. As teachers, leaders, and advisors, it is our job to influence our students and colleagues; in some cases, this may mean taking brave action in the face of challenges and discomfort. Regardless of the subject, this can feel like an insurmountable task. What can a leader do to get their audience on their side and make that essential connection?

The connection to your audience will be dependent on 3 key components –

  1. The speaker must understand the wants and needs of their audience.
  2. The audience must believe the speaker is an ally to their best interest.
  3. The speaker must paint an exciting and inspiring picture in order to generate a sense of emotional engagement.

The level of commitment that the student or any individual exhibits for any task will be dependent on the level of emotional engagement. According to the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Model of Emotions, our thoughts will trigger an emotional response – it is emotion that then drives an individual to take action.

This is actually what any commercial is hoping to do when they interrupt your favorite TV show! Ben and Jerry’s might display a delicious looking new flavor of ice cream, which will then trigger the viewer into an emotional response of “I want to eat that” or “OOOH, yum!” This then will inspire the viewer to go out and buy a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. The commercial was successful because it fulfilled all three components mentioned above. They understand their audience’s needs, because they know to air the commercial after dinner, when most people are thinking of dessert. They know the audience can trust them, because Ben and Jerry’s is a well known and established brand with a track record of decades of delicious offerings. With colorful graphics and an amusing storyline featuring a beleaguered housewife in heavenly ecstasy after her first bite of Chunky Monkey, this commercial has successfully triggered an emotional response which could potentially lead to the action on the part of the viewer – they end up hopping in their car and driving to the nearby convenience store, or the Chunky Monkey flavor is added to the next day’s grocery shopping list.

To inspire students and colleagues effectively, we must be like this Ben and Jerry’s commercial – we must paint a clear and exciting picture of what is possible in order to trigger the desired emotional response. We must provide the “commercial” for an exciting future that is possible for our team members and students. Much like the commercial, we can use humor and the power of storytelling as tools to generate trust, motivation and inspiration through emotional engagement.

I was once hired on as a lead consultant to create a curriculum for financial wellness for an organization which is committed to helping its members achieve upward financial mobility. One of the challenges that the organization faced was that while they provided all the necessary technical tools for upward financial mobility, they had a hard time getting clients to stick to the recommended suggestions for improvement.

The reason for this was because every client had a very different and individual reason for wanting to create financial improvement. One client wanted to create generational wealth so as to provide security and safety for their children. Another client had dreams of traveling the world to have new adventures and experiences. Another client wanted to feel a sense of independence so she could have the freedom to do whatever she wanted.

The problem was that the organization leaders provided excellent tools for change such as bookkeeping tools, strategies to pay back debt, and even resources for higher paying jobs, without fully demonstrating an understanding for the emotional reasons behind each individual’s desires for better circumstances. As a result, clients largely did not feel seen or heard on what issues were important to them. This did not establish a sense of trust between the administrator and the client. In addition, they could not see the connection between taking the recommended action and the emotional end result for which they were aiming.

So in an effort to establish trust and to create a sense of being emotionally understood, I made the following speech –

Hi guys, I am Aidan Park here to speak to you about financial mobility! I know I look like I come from a ton of affluence because I am tall and I smile a lot. People think I was born at the end of a cul-de-sac to a couple of dentists in Orange County. But I just happen to be lucky enough to be born with such straight teeth! Actually, I was raised by a single grandmother in government housing and was even at one point homeless. I have used a lot of the tools you are gonna receive today! So whatever your reason for wanting financial solvency may be… it may be that you want a sense of security for your loved ones, or maybe you want more adventures and excitement in your life, or maybe you want more freedom to do what you want, I know that what you will learn today will help you.”

The previous paragraph established understanding and trust with the audience by telling them that I have personal experience in the matter at hand. I used humor to defuse the tension of discussing the often uncomfortable topic of finances. I also directly hit upon and appealed to the emotional desires of some of the clients. Later on in the seminar, I would go on to ask each client to make a list of why they might want financial solvency and create an appeal aimed at their wishes. This led to greater client motivation and follow through.

This method of engagement through storytelling and humor can even be effective in very difficult personal matters. I have a personal story that will paint this picture! One of my passions in life is advocating for those who are living with HIV. I am not only the founder of my own organization (called The Yay Foundation) which is dedicated to empowering young people with the right mindset for success, I am also an ambassador for the organization Keep a Child Alive, a group that is committed to empowering children and young people living with HIV with resources, confidence, and opportunities for success.

When I speak to young people with HIV, I realize that my mission is to encourage them, so I like to say this to everyone in the beginning…

“I have been HIV positive now for seventeen years! For those of you who are negative, don’t worry, you can’t get it from jokes! I am a picture of good health…in fact, I am so strong and so fast that if someone were to walk in here and threaten us all with violence, I definitely could… push you all out of the way and get out the backdoor first. I’m fast and strong, and I am also smart enough not to mess with an attacker!”

This anecdote accomplishes the goals of understanding the audience and winning their trust by:

  1. Establishing to the audience that I, as a speaker, am self aware,
  2. Using humor to ease tension surrounding what most consider a sensitive topic,
  3. Painting a picture that shows the possibility of a happy, healthy life as an HIV Positive person, with the intention of triggering the emotions of hope and optimism for a bright future for young people who were diagnosed the same way,
  4. Demonstrating vulnerability up front, by sharing something about myself using humor, establishing and allowing trust for me with the crowd.

Most importantly, the speech might have inspired emotions of amusement, trust, optimism, positivity, and compassion. All of those inspirations will then, hopefully, inspire audience members to keep up with unpleasant tasks such as going in for a regular check up, studying for an exam they might otherwise not take seriously, or even establish friendships with others by demonstrating more worthiness and confidence.

Whatever the topic may be, if you understand your audience’s emotional motivations, the use of storytelling combined humor can be a powerful combination to generate inspiration and engagement for your group or organization.