Send in the clowns

This morning, when I traveled to work, I was confronted with a huge billboard displaying a super-sized clown face. Well, at least I think most people would describe the character on the advertisement a clown. It was promoting a film called “It: Chapter Two”, which appears to be the sequel to a 2017 big screen adaptation of Steven King’s novel about Pennywise, a bloodthirsty clown with a red balloon. As I don’t like the horror genre, I’m not a Stephen King fan either. Though I understand that people appreciate his novels. But, honestly, I’d call this poster perverse (as I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I’m not going to give any appreciation about them). It is showing a horrible mutilation and commercialization of a childhood hero character of mine.


You may call me a sentimental old fool – I’ll gladly accept it as an honorary title, except for the ‘old’ adjective – but clowns rather belong in a circus ring than in a horror movie. They are among us to provide comical and emotional relief. Just think of the cliniclowns or clown doctors that bring hope and humor to thousands of hospitalized children, or the “red nose day” fundraising campaigns in countries around the world.

In The Comic Toolbox (a book on which I wrote in an older post) John Vorhaus says that “every comic character begins and ends with his strong comic perspective – a character’s unique way of looking at his world, which differs in a clear and substantial way from the normal world view.” Clowns, if not by definition then by perception, have this comic perspective. They are well fit to be a prominent character in many stories. There need to be protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains, characters that make you laugh and make you cry. Or both at the same time. As Vorhaus also writes: “A character’s humanity must be a real part of his character.” As such, I don’t want characters make any audience feel frightened or horrified. Neither with nor without a red balloon.

So, where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns. Send in the clowns. The kind, nice and funny ones, please.

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The shapes of stories

Already in 2015, I wrote a blog post about the five elements of a story. Almost all novelists and movie directors rely upon character, setting, plot, theme, and style to ensure a consistent story, allow the action to develop and let the audience emotionally engage.

A few days ago, a tweet by Dutch mathematician and science communication professor Ionica Smeets brought a video under my attention with a lecture about the shape of stories.

The presentation is given by the American writer Kurt Vonnegut (1922-1977), probably best known for his controversial – the book was banned in various US libraries and schools – anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five. A graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago from 1945 to 1947, Vonnegut’s master thesis about “The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tasks” was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun (as he wrote in his autobiography “Palm Sunday”).

In this brilliantly funny talk, the writer draws a graph on which any story can be plotted. The vertical axis represents the good and ill fortune the characters experience, while the horizontal axis represents the timeline from the beginning to the end of a story.

Have a look at the video and enjoy the lecture…

For those interested (or provoked, surprised or intrigued), there’s also a recording or a longer version of the lecture on YouTube.

Snap. Timing is everything.

“Timing has always been a key element in my life. I have been blessed to have been in the right place at the right time” – Buzz Aldrin, American astronaut and the second human to walk on the moon

If you want to surprise or impress your audience, then do it right. Have a look at this video clip from the 1978 BBC documentary Connections.

This is  probably the best-timed shot in television history. And it’s 100% real. Forty years ago, fake news was still an unknown phenomenon. No video manipulation or chroma keying. Presenter James Burke had only one chance to record this scene and to snap the rocket launch…

The emotion of nature and the nature of emotion

Research by the BBC and the University of California Berkeley has found that watching nature documentaries makes people feel happy, while it reduces stress and anxiety. Overall, a majority of 7500 participants from the US, UK, Singapore, India, South Africa and Australia experienced significant increases in positive emotions including awe, joy, curiosity, contentment, enthusiasm, and amusement. The study also found a substantial decrease in emotions such as nervousness, anxiety, fear, stress, and tiredness.

In a BBC media release about the study, Prof. Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley commented:

The shifts in emotion demonstrated in the BBC study as a result of watching this powerful natural history [Planet Earth II] series are significant as we know that wonder and contentment are the foundations of human happinessIf people experience feelings of awe, they are more likely to display empathetic and charitable behaviours and have been shown to be better able to handle stress.”

Reading this article about the positive influence of natural images on humans made me think of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes: the euthanasia of Sol Roth in Richard Fleischer’s 1973 science-fiction film Soylent Green.

The movie plays in a starving New York City of the future (well, if you still can call 2022 “the future” …) that’s severely suffering from overpopulation, environmental pollution, and global warming. With the help of elderly academic, Solomon “Sol” Roth (played by Edward G. Robinson in his final role), NYPD detective Robert Thorn (played by Charlton Heston) investigates the murder of an executive at Soylent Corporation, the company that manufactures the high-energy Soylent Green food rations.

At the film’s conclusion, we see Sol Roth in one of New York’s euthanasia centers. He’s put to rest (aka “going home”) with orange-hued lighting, classical music (Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” symphony No. 6, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony No. 6, and Grieg’s Peer Gynt), and a video projection with wild flora and fauna. And then, Sol reveals Soylent Green’s major secret: [spoiler alert!] the nutritious green wafers are made from human remains, before choosing assisted suicide with a lethal drug.

The fact that I consider this one of my favorite movie scenes, is not because of the actors’ performance – there’s little dialog or action in this specific scene – but because of the emotion that’s concentrated in these less than five minutes of video. With color, music, and nature images acting as amplifiers.

Maybe the above content can look a bit exotic for a post on a blog that’s labeled “business storytelling,” but I decided to share the article and the video clip as they show the power of emotion in fiction, non-fiction and science-fiction. Same is true in everyday life and business. I truly enjoyed every single episode of Planet Earth II. And, isn’t there a bit of Sol Roth in each of us?

Nants ingonyama bagithi baba

Some stories are so strong that they survive for centuries, and so universal that they appear in many forms and in different contexts. Recently, while I was watching Disney’s classic masterpiece The Lion King on TV, it came to my mind that the plot holds many similarities to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.


Although my children consider themselves too grown up for watching animated features, their old dad enjoys them more than ever. William Shakespeare and Walt Disney are two of the most influential storytellers in human history. In my article about five elements of a story (and how to use them in a business presentation) I identified 5 key ingredients to ensure a consistent story, allow the action to develop and let the audience emotionally engage. Let’s have a look at how Hamlet and The Lion King compare…

1. Plot

The plot of both Hamlet and The Lion King is about a (young) prince whose father is killed by his uncle. The prince is exiled from his home and returns to revenge his father’s death and take the throne that rightfully belongs to him.

2. Characters

The protagonist role of prince Hamlet Jr. of Denmark is played by the lion cub Simba, while Shakespeare’s antagonist, the king’s brother Claudius, has inspired Disney’s animators to create the villain lion Scar. And did you  ever look at the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed as Rosencratz and Guildenstern?

3. Theme

Death, revenge, and justice are major themes in both stories. Both princes delay action, they overcome a moral struggle, and their faith only changes when their dead fathers reappear as a ghost. It has to be noted however, that most of the characters in Hamlet die, while Simba lives happily ever after with his youth friend Nala.

4. Setting

At first sight, the settings of both productions are completely different. One can hardly compare the African savanna with the medieval Denmark. But what if you start looking at Pride Rock as the King’s castle, and match the devastated Pride Lands that Simba discovers when he comes home to Shakespeare’s churchyard in act 5?

5. Style

As they were addressing a different audience, the style of Shakespeare’s play vs. Disney’s movie is notably different. Playing around 1600 A.D., London theater visitors were the very rich, and the upper and lower middle class, while Disney’s movies are primarily addressing 20th century children and their parents.

But, as with many Disney films, The Lion King works on different levels and both children and adults will enjoy this animated classic for different reasons. You even don’t have to be a Shakespeare fan.

P.S. For those who wonder about the title of this post: “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba” is Zulu for “Here comes a lion, father.” They are the first words of the opening sequence of the movie… and, yes, I have seen the musical too.

The serious science of presenting science seriously

Whatever the purpose of your presentation – you may be trying to sell a product, convey an idea, or educate people –  there’s a message you need to deliver and a result you want to achieve.  But too often, this message gets diluted (or even obscured) by badly designed visuals, wrongly used presentation tools, or inappropriate speaking habits.

In an older post I embedded a YouTube video of standup comedian Don McMillan to illustrate the “death by PowerPoint” phenomenon. It shows how easy it is to kill a presentation by over-focusing on your slides and over-using the fancy features of software packages like PowerPoint, Keynote or Prezi (you may remember my article about why I don’t like Prezi).

Recently, I discovered another video that exposes the same behavior, but in an even more powerful way. While the audience of a comedian would expect the man or the woman in front to say and do some pretty crazy things, this movie shows a recording of a renowned researcher, speaking in front of an audience of undergraduate students.


In a 5 minutes long talk, the keynote speaker, Dr. Fisher-Katz, manages to make almost every possible presentation mistake. What the audience doesn’t know is that the famous scientist is actually a fictional character, impersonated by an actress, and that all of them are being tricked in the context of a communications course.

Enjoy the video. There’s so much you can learn from world’s worst research presentation

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The sorcerer’s apprentice

Some storytellers deserve a statue. As a matter of fact, there are actually a few of them who already got one – although erected posthumously. If you visit Copenhagen, you can meet the bronze Hans Christian Andersen, and in Anaheim, California, there’s a “Storyteller Statue” showing the young Walt Disney with his creation Mickey Mouse.

Although my children have grown too big for watching Disney movies (at least they think they have) I still can’t get enough of savoring his 1940 animated feature Fantasia. And within the movie, which is (for the few who don’t know this masterpiece) a compilation of animated interpretations of classical music pieces, the well-known fragment of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is certainly my personal favorite.

Supported by the music of French composer Paul Dukas, and conducted by Leopold Stokowski, the sequence features Mickey Mouse as an aspiring magician who borrows his master’s enchanted hat, and then finds out that the magic is a little too strong to handle… (you may watch the video here.)


The Sorcerer’s Apprentice exposes Walt Disney as the master-storyteller we know, able to deliver a story that appeals to all audiences. A story that brings an animated character alive, as if it were a real person. A story that is timeless and has survived (and will survive) long after it was first told. A story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but without room for distraction or boredom. A story without words, that is a symphony of sound and vision. A story full of emotion, humor and heart.

There’s so much we can learn from the great magician Walt Disney, and… aren’t we all a little like apprentice sorcerers ourselves?