Storytelling
Storytelling

Size Matters — How to make your words tip the scale.

December 8, 2022
·
7 min read
Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash
“”Well. I’ll eat it,” said Alice, and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if it makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door: so either way I’ll get into the garden.”
— Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Children instinctively know all the tricks. They know there has to be pace. They know that somewhere in the woods there must be a big bad wolf. And above all they know size matters. 

Whether ogre-huge or Thumbelina-tiny, children pay attention to scale. 

Children understand that manipulating size in storytelling is essential to hitting a story’s objective. Seeking praise for achievements at school, the achievement will be stretched. Avoiding a telling-off for something naughty, the crime will be reduced. This shrink and grow effect lingers into adult storytelling, but only when the storyteller is in the pub. Consider the classic fisherman’s tale of the one “that got away”. The mythic fish described in terms so florid they’d make an advertising executive blush.

In business storytelling however, we forget this shrink and grow ability. This is ironic. Arguably, the business presentation is where we need it most.

Business storytelling boring.

Schools and  apprenticeships hammer into us the idea that truth must be served unvarnished and facts straight-up. This strips words of color and flavor and texture. It stops us bringing scale to a subject. 

Opportunities or threats, when presented purely with  facts, become  2D cutouts.

Why is scale important?

There’s three vital questions to ask. What do I want the audience to feel? What do I want the audience to know? And what do I want the audience to do?

In each question, there’s a role for scale. 

How powerfully do you want them to feel something? If action is needed, and needed now, then you want them to feel that opportunity or threat in its fullest force. If however, your goal is for the audience to leave with a quiet sense of reassurance (in other words, leave you alone to get on with the job), then the knob marked ‘scale’ needs adjusting to its lowest setting.

How big or small do you want to paint the subject for the audience? Depending on how you frame scale, small appears big and vice versa.

How big or small do you want the audience to perceive your requested actions to be. Whether as a walk in the park or a space shot to Mars, it all depends on your use of scale.

The good news is that  it’s easier than you might think. You just need to know which cake to eat, and which bottle to drink.

Shrink and Stretch¹

Shrink and stretch are two wonderfully invisible techniques for bringing scale. This invisibility comes from the fact that they are simple word substitutions. 

For example, let’s request a time extension on a project. Is it a ‘modest’ request, or an ‘exceptional’ one? 

This triggers something called the Anchoring Effect. Even if people in the audience hear the request and think “Wow, that’s big!”, they remain anchored to the adjective ‘modest’. A certain amount of cognitive dissonance ensues.² This gives you the chance to make your case even in front of opponents who want the deadline sooner rather than later.

We don’t pay enough attention to our adjectives. We get taught to “...keep it factual”. Chosen adjectives however make the difference between success and failure.

We also fail to pay enough attention to anchoring. In our quest to keep things ‘factual’ we leave the field wide open for others to frame things before we do. This is a mistake. Much better to set your own anchor on how topics are viewed, than to let others do it for you.

AutoCorrect³

AutoCorrect follows a similar idea, but overtly. It’s the flashy stage-magic cousin to the more subtle Shrink and Stretch. It works most effectively when trying to make something seem larger.

With Shrink and Stretch you take one adjective and quietly replace it with another — either bigger or smaller, depending on your goal. With Autocorrect, you allow both adjectives to be seen at once. 

First use the lesser adjective. Then pause, look thoughtful for a beat, before verbally backing-up to stomp all over the weaker adjective and replacing it with a stronger one. 

For example: “I’m really pleased with these results. No. Scratch that! I’m absolutely thrilled with these results.”

This verbal backing-up is why Autocorrect only really works when spoken out loud. In written form it looks a little odd.

Small to Big and Big to Small

These two techniques remind me of the film-makers’ craft. Scale is all about how you arrange the lenses!

It’s easiest to explain with an analogy. Imagine a telescope. Pick up that telescope, place the small end to your eye and point the fat end at a distant object. What happens? The distant object looks bigger. (Duhhhh!)

Now flip the telescope over and place the fat end to your eye and look at the distant object out of the small end. What happens now? The distant object looks even more distant and tiny that it did to the naked eye.

We achieve that same telescopic effect with words. I have a real-life example from a presentation I once heard given about the benefits of mobile working. This was at the dawn of mobile computing and some 20 years before Covid work-from-home. The speaker was describing the financial savings a company could make by closing its office space and moving to work-from-home.

“You’ll save on all this office-space. You’ll save on paying for the parking garages. You can save on the equipment, and renewing office furniture. Hell, you can even save on buying toilet paper!”

The sales-person did not get the deal. He’d taken the client down a series of lenses from “Office-space” (Super big), to “Furniture” (Medium-Small) and finally arrived at “Toilet paper” (Super super small). And that’s where the clients mind stayed. Had the sales person reversed that sequence though (and maybe swapped ‘toilet paper’ with ‘office consumables’), then the client would instead have seen an ever-widening plethora of savings!

When offering a list of reasons, payoffs, costs, or even adjectives, pay attention to the sequence they’re offered in. Sequence small to big, and the end point seems huge. Sequence in the other direction, and its “Honey, I shrunk the kids”.

Humanize⁴

Humanize brings scale by putting words into objects that can’t (or generally don’t) speak.

There’s one form of this that I can guarantee you’ve heard in a presentation, and that’s “The data says…” 

Close your eyes for a second. Give form to what this spokesperson called ‘the data’ actually looks like. When I do this exercise I see an especially boring person, all in gray, and quite possibly with a pocket protector. They also have an irritatingly nasal voice. 

Is that the voice you want your presentation to have? 

Of course, in reality, ‘the data’ cannot speak. It’s 1’s and 0’s. We have, however, decided to anthropomorphise ‘the data’ by giving it the human attribute of voice. What alternatives could we substitute for ‘the data’? Depending on your message, the possibilities range from ‘the customers’, to ‘the market’, to ‘the environment’, and all the way up to ‘the planet’. ⁵

Decide what sort of voice your inanimate object is using. The tone could range all the way from ‘hinting’ through to ‘crying out’. It all depends on what you want the audience to feel, and how urgently you want them to feel it.

Scale is distance. Scale is size. Scale is weight. In other words — scale is perspective. It’s the element that takes flat 2D cut-out facts, and brings them to life. 

Wouldn’t that be a great thing to be able to add to your next presentation? 

Peter Watts is a Senior Instructional Designer and Facilitator. He works on both fassforward's Live, Live/online and tailored programs. Peter is fassforward's lead instructional designer for Live/online experiences which deliver mission-critical leadership and communications training, globally, at scale.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

¹ Known to the ancient Greeks as Meiosis and Auxesis
² Negotiators are trained to use this technique to ‘drop their anchor early’, and subconsciously affect the other parties sense of scale simply through deliberate word choices.
³ Aka Epanorthosis
⁴ Prosopopoeia
⁵ Beware of amplifying all the way up to ‘the Universe’ unless actually working for NASA

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