The immutable law of storytelling success


I am an economist by training (please don’t stop reading here!).  One of the most famous laws in economics is The law of diminishing returns.  In everyday language the law  tells us that,  after a point in time the more you put into something the less you get back.

The law of diminishing returns has broader applications not just in economics but across life. In a call centre, for instance, service level improvements decline in proportion to each additional successive agent added.  An example that a lot of people can relate to is how good that first piece of cake tastes ..the second piece not that good and the third piece yuck….diminishing returns in operation.

So what does this have to do with storytelling?  Storytelling like most things in life is subject to this law.  Do you remember the famous line popularised by the film Jerry Macguire?  This is when Jerry Macguire (Tom Cruise) flies back home to meet Dorothy (Renée  Zellweger) to tell her that he loves her.  She tells him “You had me at hello“.  Our challenge is to find that same ‘sweet spot’ in our stories where we have our audience and to stop our stories there….sadly it’s unlikely to be at hello.

Perversely I think for storytellers that sweet spot is when you end at the exact right moment.  There is a point in your story where you have your audience – and if your story continues beyond this point you actually start to lose them, as the law of diminishing returns kick in.

That is one of the reasons why over-long stories simply don’t work.  Quite often with  long stories there is a lot of unnecessary detail and the point is often laboured or repeated.  The only way to know is to practice and bounce your story against a trusted colleague and gauge where the best place to end your story is.  End your story at the right point, at the top of the curve and you get the optimum results for your story.  Just like cake with storytelling it is knowing when to stop.