Change Work May 2015

Confusion reigns

Have you seen the film "Pulp Fiction"? It tells several tales of the fortunes and misfortunes of a collection of murderous crooks and other shady characters. As well as for some shocking scenes, it's memorable for the way it jumps around in time; the interlocking stories being told out of sequence in a confusing, but quite gripping, way.

Structuring a story like this can be very effective and Quentin Tarantino, the director of Pulp Fiction, is clearly very good at it. You'll probably be able to think of many other examples of interrupted flow in cinema and literature - so I don't need to compile a list! But why is the principle important in the context of personal development?

You know that teasing your audience is a standard trick for keeping attention and one way of doing that is to upset the expected order of the events you're describing or the points you're making. But just how do you do that?

It's based on a deep psychological driver that we all feel and respond to, even if we don't always realise what's happening. I suppose it's another of those evolutionary legacies - this time our ability to make sense of the world, a process that usually works in a linear, question and answer sort of way. So whenever the question isn't answered it automatically becomes more important to you - because it might be concealing a threat or an opportunity.

Specifically, it comes up in NLP coaching and therapy, so you can use it in those situations if that's what you do. Otherwise it will really enhance your next business presentation - or novel or feature film!

The driver is the desire for resolution. We don't like questions being raised and then left unanswered, hanging. It's irritating and unsatisfying and you'll concentrate harder in order to catch the answer. It's a kind of hypnotic trance in which you aren't really in conscious control of where your mind is going.

As a presenter or storyteller, you achieve this by digressing and introducing apparently unrelated components into the narrative. Listeners don't know where this is leading and feel slightly disturbed. And that feeling gets stronger the longer they have to wait for you to get back to the original theme.

Unfinished story segments and unanswered questions like this are called "open loops" in the jargon and are a powerful means of making your communications more memorable and your influencing more effective. When a loop is left open as you go off on a tangent your listeners will want it to be closed. Their curiosity is piqued and they wait for the resolution with increasing anticipation. Of course (as always), the idea can be taken further and loops can be "nested" - where a sequence of digressions leaves open loops which are then closed in reverse order. It's surprising how well we can unconsciously keep track of many layers of nested loops - even when completely confused at the conscious level.

Which brings us back to Pulp Fiction which demonstrates how, even when you know that you're being played, it still works when it's done well. Even if you're not an Oscar-winning director, you can still take advantage of open loops to structure speeches, presentation and articles and really get under your audience's skin.

Now the big reveal! By now you're probably suspecting that this article contains loops... and so it does. So how many nested loops can you find in it? Was reading it even more irritating and confusing than usual? And have I succeeded in closing all the loops in a satisfying way? Sorry if I haven't - I confess I'm not (yet) very skilled at this and found it quite tricky to write. It sort of goes against the grain - maybe because I'm used to technical reporting, where information is arranged into neat sections that are complete in themselves. And I can recall at least one occasion where I messed up a trainer's attempt to leave an open loop by jumping in with the answer straight away! So, a bit more practice required from me.

I hope I don't overdo it in future articles!