April 21, 2016

Using tragedy for greater impact

The story archetype we are looking at today is tragedy. Tragedy is difficult to use in business emails, not least because the first instinct of marketers is to sugar coat a message with joy and arrogance.

Despite its awkwardness in business use you shouldn’t discount tragedy. Tragedy is a great plot to use when you need your audience to stop and think.

I had a client a couple of years ago who runs a school for mountain guides. I have forwarded one of his autoresponder emails. I should add that these words were produced by the client, not by me.

Subject: When no rope can be best…

2002, Mount Hood, Oregon. 6 Climbers are descending after a successful summit of the mountain. The top person on the highest rope team slips and begins to slide down the mountain. By the time the rope comes tight, he is going about 30 miles an hour. His teammate, who is in self arrest position, ostensibly to stop his climbing partner’s slide, is ripped from his stance. Soon, the third member of the rope team is pulled from his self arrest position, and the three are hurtling down the side of the mountain.

1997, Ptarmigan Peak, Alaska. A team of 12 students and 2 instructors are descending after a successful summit of the mountain. The top person on the highest rope team slips and begins to slide down the mountain. By the time the rope comes tight, he is going about 30 miles an hour. His teammate, who is in self arrest position, ostensibly to stop his climbing partner’s slide, is ripped from his stance. Soon, the third member of the rope team is pulled from his self arrest position, and the three are hurtling down the side of the mountain.

2002, Michimauido, Peru. Two teams of climbers, each with two members are descending after a successful summit of the mountain. The top person on the highest rope team slips and begins to slide down the mountain. By the time the rope comes tight, he is going about 30 miles an hour. His teammate, who is in self arrest position, ostensibly to stop his climbing partner’s slide, is ripped from his stance. Immediately both are hurtling down the side of the mountain.

RUNP. Roped up, no protection. That’s what Accidents in North American Mountaineering, a book published every year that summarized and looks at the root cause of mountaineering accidents, calls this type of fall. It’s so common that there is an abbreviation. RUNP.

A group of climbers is travelling in terrain too steep to self arrest. But they stay roped up. And choose not to place any pro. Then one slips. Because they’re tied together, a second is pulled off. A third.

Time is of the essence. It always is. If you belayed everything out, you’d never get anywhere. Maybe you should use running pro. Or maybe no rope at all.

2002, Mount Hood, Oregon. 9 climbers lie in a tangled heap in a crevasse. While falling, one rope team tangled up with a second, and then a third. Like a bad Wile E. Coyote cartoon, the group tangled up into a giant ball of yarn and hurtled down the mountain until they came rest in this crevasse. 2 are dead. 5 more are seriously injured. The rescue helicopter, sent up in windy conditions, has crashed, killing the pilot.

1997, Ptarmigan Peak, Alaska. 12 climbers lie in a tangled heap in a the base of the mountain. While falling, one rope team tangled up with a second, and then a third. Like a bad Wile E. Coyote cartoon, the group tangled up into a giant ball of yarn and hurtled down the mountain until they came rest at the base of the peak. 2 are dead. 9 more are seriously injured.

At 2 AM, about 30 miles away, a helicopter lands on the Eklutna Glacier. It’s there to get Deb Ajango, the director of the Oudoor Program for Alaska Pacific University. She’s had the job a week.

2002, Michimauido, Peru. 4 climbers lie in a tangled heap in the base of the mountain. While falling, one rope team tangled up with the second. Like a bad Wile E. Coyote cartoon, the group tangled up into a giant ball of yarn and hurtled down the mountain until they came rest. None survive, although rescuers suspect that 2 of the climbers survived the fall, but later died of exposure.

We use climbing ropes to make us safer. This much should be obvious. Less obvious are the several ways a rope can be used to make you safer.

You can use a traditional belay, where one climber waits at the bottom and feeds out rope to the climber. If they slip, the climber at the bottom catches her fallen friend.

You can use running protection, where both climbers climb at the same time, but clip the rope to something while they go. Here, if someone falls, you might get pulled off your stance, but the protection should hold you and save you.

You can travel in “glacier travel” mode, where you walk along, tied to someone, and if you fall, they act as your anchor.

You can short rope, where a rope is used to correct a slip before it becomes a fall.

These are all used, and are quite appropriate at various times.

But sometimes the rope makes things more dangerous.

You’re climbing, tied to another member of your party. It’s not very steep, so you don’t take the time to put in any protection. If my partner falls, you think, I can self arrest and stop their fall.

Then the climbing route gets a bit steeper, but you don’t notice. Or you think that you can still self arrest. Or it’s getting late.

It doesn’t really matter. You don’t put in any protection. You are the anchor.

And then your partner falls. He doesn’t stop. You curse and get in self arrest position. But his momentum is too much, and you’re pulled off. You are hurtling off the mountain.

Decisions, decisions…

Thought provoking, right? That’s the point about tragedy – you learn something and it makes you think.

Could this email have been better? Perhaps. The tragedy plot actually has four distinct phases:

Tragedy plot timeline

The first phase is the dream phase. Things are going well, and the climbers have reached their summit. The point of the first phase is to show that the characters are actually good people, which is what ultimately makes the story a tragedy.

Second is the flaw phase. Things are still going well, but a mistake or flaw has become apparent. Correct rope protocol has not been followed. There is an element of suspense here as the reader can see a disaster waiting to happen.

Third is the nightmare stage. A climber has fallen. Things are not yet so bad, and the other climbers adopt the self-arrest position.

Finally stage four is the disaster, or death phase. The falling climber is travelling too quickly, and the remaining climbers are also ripped from the mountain.

Tragedy works when you have an important message or moral that you want to hammer home. Tragedy always involves death, although besides the death of a person this could be the death of a product, idea or business.

For the tragedy plot to work there also has to have been a mistake or flaw of some kind in the run up to death. The eventual outcome should in other words have been avoidable. There is always a lesson to be learnt.

I think that opportunities to use tragedy in marketing emails are relatively sparse, but this is a high-impact story plot when used in the right circumstances.

Previous Posts In This Series

Creating stories that last: Introduction
Plot 1: Overcoming the monster
Plot 2: Comedy

Rob Drummond

Rob Drummond runs the Maze Marketing Podcast and Maze Mastery. Rob specialises in content production, ad creation, storytelling and CRM systems. He has two published books, Magnetic Expertise and Simple Story Selling, affordable on Amazon.

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