In his speech to students from Yale (watch video by Goalcast here), Tom Hanks uses a story very much like a parable. Instead of focusing on the content and content delivery, this post breaks down the elements for your immediate application: [1 + 3]= U

In this story, the classic elements are:

1. A Wise One.

That’s the first numeral in the formula.

2. One, Two, or Three Disciple(s) on a Journey.

Typically, a one-character story (i.e. one disciple) makes an observation or commits a mistake, and the Wise One offers a profound statement on life or after-life.

If there are two characters, the other young disciple is often the opposite of the first, showing contrasting behaviours. Think of the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, where one son runs away from home, but the other son stays at home. The former is welcomed home and lavished with a celebratory feast, while the latter becomes disgruntled and jealous. The father chastises the obedient son for not recognising his own wealth and abundance. That’s an example of a [1 + 2]story with one Wise One and Two Young Ones.

But in Tom Hanks’ example, it’s a [1+3]story with one Wise One and Three Young Ones.

Three is a magic number.

Think of Three Little Pigs; Goldilocks and the Three Bears; Three Blind MiceThe Three Musketeers; and the Three Wise Men in the Christmas story.

Usually the first two characters function as a set-up: it sets up audience expectation. It builds a linear path of suspense and anticipation – because, typically, the last one makes the most profound statement. So, your audience is waiting…

But in this example, the third character functions like a punchline in a joke that subverts all our previous expectations, including assumptions we had of the narrative structure or the stock characters. When we hear the last fear, we assume the Wise One has the most profound lesson for us — but, no, the Wise One reveals a common fear.

3. The Lesson relevant to the Contemporary Audience.

Specifically in this example, Tom Hanks comes out of the story and resumes the role of the storyteller to explain a larger life lesson for his audience. He does it outside the story — as the Wise One.

Without being a spoiler, Hanks offers two F words for us to choose — and that’s his lesson.

The structure becomes [1+3]= U,

with “u” meaning you as the storyteller becoming the Omniscient One, the Wise One who offers advice to your audience.

As you can see, you can use any story you’ve heard to lay ground rules or life lessons. But to do so, you would need to rise above these characters and find a provocative thread for us to hang on to: the choices that reduce life’s complexities to two options: either/or.

They are simplistic for a reason: a story is meant to summarise and synthesise key messages. If they’re too complex, the story loses its punch.

And so the lessons linger…

© 2010 | EDMUND CHOW