A Story Teller’s Choice

Last week, at the annual Next Gen conference, I delivered a presentation about the history of Sustainability Accounting to the young professionals of the New York State Society of CPAs.

Scintillating stuff, eh? Well, believe it or not, it’s actually a fairly engaging tale. It begins in northern Vermont on a Ben & Jerry’s dairy farm, segues over to the Alaskan shoreline on the doomed Exxon Valdez oil tanker, and then ends in the present with characters as diverse and colorful as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and Charles, the Prince of Wales in Great Britain.

But that’s a tale for a different day! Today, I’d like to convey an anecdote about a key choice that any story teller must address while planning to regale an audience. Namely, the decision is: do I describe the climax of the tale at the beginning of the story, or do I wait until the end?

The traditional approach, of course, is to tell a story in chronological order and then describe the climax at its conclusion. Most theatrical plays, films, television shows, and books flow in this conventional manner.

And yet certain authors have enjoyed great success by beginning with the denouement and then “flashing back” to earlier scenes. In the Oscar winning film Titanic, for example, it makes perfect sense to begin in the present and then flash back to earlier times because the audience already knows the fate of the doomed ocean liner. And in other works, such as in Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, the flash back technique is effective because it grabs the audience’s attention immediately with a dramatic burst of energy.

Nevertheless, there are times when a story teller’s intentions are betrayed by his own audience. William Shakespeare, for instance, undoubtedly wanted viewers of Romeo and Juliet to be stunned senseless when his young lovers struggled and persevered right up to their moment of imminent freedom and bliss … only to be slaughtered by their own foolish misunderstanding.

That moment of astonished shock would have been impossible to convey if Shakespeare had revealed the ending in the first scene of the play. But regrettably, over the ensuing centuries, the public’s growing familiarity with the work has forever ruined the Bard’s final horrible surprise.

Fortunately for me, though, my Sustainability Accounting audience had relatively little knowledge of the history of the discipline. So did I lead off my story by discussing His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales? Or did I end with him?

I decided to play it safe and tell my tale in traditional chronological order, beginning with dairy cows and ending with the British Crown Prince. And my presentation was fairly well received, although a member of the audience did subsequently observe that I “could have grabbed the attention of the crowd immediately” by beginning at the end of the story.

Which approach was the correct one? Even in retrospect, I’m still not sure what decision I should have chosen. And yet I have no doubt that the choice itself wielded a dramatic impact on how the audience perceived the story.