Sparking the Imagination of Your Audience

Offering just enough detail for your audience to get creative and participate in your storytelling.

A collection of distorted pentagons doesn’t sound like much, but when you see it...

Don’t worry, we’re not going to start analyzing the dark corners of your personality through a Rorschach test. What you’re experiencing is dubbed by Gestalt psychologists as reification. Essentially, you’re filling in the blanks. You’re recognizing a pattern that you’ve been conditioned with, drawing a line encircling the 6 floating pentagons, and picturing it as a soccer ball. 

The explicit information provided are the 6 seemingly abstract pentagons. Combining that with your perception of the world, a soccer ball is presented. The only reason you’re able to build this image in your mind is because you’ve seen it before; it’s a part of your own experience. 

So who created the soccer ball? The artist, Hina Javed? Or you, the viewer? I argue that you both did. With intention, the artist exploited a commonly shared understanding of what a soccer ball looks like. It was you however that decided what the image means to you. 

Javed recognizes her work means nothing until it comes in contact with a viewer who shares that common visual recognition of a soccer ball; only at that point does the abstract become more concrete. 

What these 6 floating pentagons offer us is a glimpse of what makes a story great. 

Storytelling is about seeding the audience’s imagination by sharing the bare minimum of explicit information; just enough to construct an idea in the audience’s mind. 

Six pentagons in a row wouldn’t mean much, but when they’re distorted and spaced in a way that reflects a pattern on the outside of a sphere, the storyteller is offering just enough information for us to draw the rest of the picture. 

In the soccer ball example, the artist could have drawn in lines to show the white pentagons as well. She could have drawn the circle herself, added 3 parallel lines floating to one side to show movement, or added a background to put the abstract shapes in the context of a soccer pitch. She deemed the pattern on the soccer ball enough to convey the idea she wanted the viewer to absorb.

Gauging the amount of explicit information the storyteller offers can dramatically alter the story, intentionally and unintentionally. 

Storytellers will intentionally offer explicit information to ensure the audience is following the right line of thinking. If we’re reading a thriller, the writer will use colourful adjectives to make sure the audience understands the main character’s anxiety. If we’re watching a love story, we’ll likely encounter upbeat, staccato in the soundtrack to keep a light and positive tone to the action on the screen. 

These are the story’s guardrails; intentionally added to keep the audience on the right line of thinking. And this is where a story’s impact is made. 

Storytellers play with the levers they have at their disposal. They decide just how much explicit information they want to share with their audience. Too little detail and different audience members with different backgrounds will interpret information very differently leading to confusion. Too much and the audience will feel patronized and controlled, leaving little to the imagination.

Stories aren’t just for entertainment. They’re for engagement. They’re meant to stick around, to be memorable, and to make someone think twice. 

Great stories understand their context, have an objective, and acknowledge their audience’s participation. Great stories offer just enough to spark imagination, to play off our preconceived notions, and then take us down a path we didn’t know we could go down.

This newsletter explores storytelling: what it is, why it works, and how you can apply principles to your everyday life. Whether you’re writing a report, putting together a presentation, or just telling a joke, understanding storytelling can help you relate to your audience, offer captivating observations, and be more persuasive. 

Every week, I’ll write another brief exploration of storytelling on topics like audience perspective, storytelling in a single image, and how to use storytelling in the workplace.

Thanks for joining me!