Lazy engineers and hard-working tour guides
Summary: Good storytellers are like tour guides, using technique and craft to make their stories as easy as possible for their audiences to engage with. It's hard work, but it pays off.
Early in my career in tech, I was introduced to a phrase that stuck with me:
“Lazy engineers are good engineers.”
The phrase is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Behind it is the idea that, while a hard-working engineer will forge straight ahead and complete a task, a lazy engineer will try to figure out how to write software to automate the task so they don’t have to do it themselves.
The unintentional result is better efficiency over time, because once a task is delegated to machines, it never has to be done by a human again. The “hard-working” engineer may have to complete the same task over and over. The “lazy” engineer has to do it only once.
Story audiences avoid unnecessary work
The phrase also acknowledges a salient quality of human nature. At heart, we’re energy-conservative beings. All other things equal, when given a choice, we’ll prefer whatever path has the least friction. We may put up with a little bit of hassle for the sake of curiosity or novelty. But not for long.
To put up with friction, we need a really strong motivation. We need to have the sense that it’s worth it — that something truly amazing is coming.
As creators of stories, this poses a challenge, especially in the beginning of a story. Learning new characters and worlds takes effort. Effort creates friction. And audiences are allergic to friction.
“But the effort is worth it,” you say; “My story’s payoff is incredible.”
And it may well be! But unless your audience is already familiar with your work, they have no way of knowing that.
So, what is one to do?
Reduce the effort required, of course.
Good guides do the work
Years ago, my wife and I went on an anniversary trip to Turkey. While there, we rode on an hour-long tourist cruise up and down the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Everywhere we turned, there were fascinating things to take in. Sights, sounds, scents; texture and light and movement.
It could easily have been overwhelming . . . or sent us diving for the guidebooks or Googling things on our phones. Alternatively, we could have spent hours in preparation before the cruise, researching and learning about all the things we could expect to see.
But we didn’t have to do any of that. We had a guide with us on the boat.
Our guide provided all that context. He pointed out which buildings and locations had historical or cultural significance, explained the relevant topics, illuminated interesting little details.
He did the work for us, eliminating friction. That gave us the freedom to simply sit and see and experience.
What a treasure.
Good storytellers are guides
We have a similar calling as storytellers. We need to do the hard work of being guides, reducing friction, bringing our stories to our audiences, rather than asking them to come to us.
We do this by the way we tell our stories, by the techniques and structures we employ.
The shape of our storytelling matters. It can make our stories easier or harder. That’s a challenge. It takes hard work and knowledge and skill. But if we do it well, the effect is almost magical. We tell a story, and our audience is swept away.
All they have to do is simply sit and see and experience.
Read this next
The interest-effort formula for engaging story audiences
When engaging with stories, audiences experience a push and pull between effort and interest. Once you’ve mastered the basics of craft, you can tune the balance to control type of experience you give your audience.
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