Story-Writing Tips for Business Documents
The following ideas come from the fiction writer’s portion of the writing spectrum, but they can help the business storyteller, too. Use these approaches with both written and oral communication:
- Show, don’t tell. Rather than sticking to straight narrative or piling on the descriptive adjectives, put readers right into your scene so they can draw their own conclusions. Paint a detailed picture of the situation, event, place, or person.
Try telling the story in present tense rather than past, bringing it more immediate and alive for you as well as the reader or listener. Immerse yourself in the detail and speak from inside the re-created experience.
- Engage the senses. Use vivid, graphic language to activate people’s sense of smell, hearing, sound, touch, and sight and make them feel as if they are there themselves. Research shows that specific areas of the brain light up if you say hands are “leathery,” for example, rather than “rough.”
- Use dialogue and first-hand quotes. Rather than, “My sixth-grade teacher told me I would be a failure,” try, “One day, I’m sitting at school, looking out the window, and I look up and there’s Mrs. Dim, my sixth-grade teacher, staring down at me. She says, ‘Jeremy, when I look at you, I know I failed to teach you — and that you will fail in life.’”
- Be concrete and specific. Take time to pin down details and the right words. Abstractions don’t resonate with people. “I teach people to improve their writing” accomplishes less than “I show entrepreneurs how to create messages that win more hearts, minds, and contracts.”
- Use simple, say-able language. Rely on short words, short sentences, and plain structures. This especially applies to written stories because you’re tapping into an oral tradition that generates its own expectations. Who doesn’t listen up when you hear or read, “Once upon a time …”? Think about that natural story cadence and try echoing it. Or try using the words to spark your brainstorming, and perhaps even keep them in your delivered message: “Once upon a time I put on my first suit and went out on my first sales call … .”
- Stay positive. Highlighting your mistakes and setbacks along the way is effective; people relate to this sharing and may even mentally cheer you on toward success. But be sure your story has a happy ending — one that leaves the audience with a good impression of you. Park any ironic jokes, told at your own expense, at home.
- Know your point. Be sure you know why you’re telling your story and that this moral aligns with the core message you want to get across. In fact, many people write the ending first and then build the rest of the story toward it. You might bring the point home, as in “I know now that following those side roads is what prepared me to set you on the right track.” Or you may decide to let the story make the point on its own. A big-vision story might end, “I see a world where no one has to struggle for clean air and all children are healthy” or “My idea will solve the industry’s data storage problem and save millions of dollars, millions of trees.”
Try This: A good way to explore storytelling is to exploit its oral basis. Identify something that has stuck in your mind, whether an experience or small incident, and then tell that story to someone orally. You may find that after a minute or so, you can immerse yourself in a specific place and time and relive what happened to a surprising degree. See where the story takes you. Because the incident comes to mind, it may shed more meaning than you expect on your career or a particular decision, action, idea. Then create a written version.
Stories are everywhere around us. Develop your awareness of good storytelling techniques in presentations you attend, what you read and what you listen to. NPR and the BBC both have storytelling programs, and it’s especially illuminating to hear well-crafted stories read aloud well.
On a more down-to-earth level, take a look at Quora, “the best answer to any question.” On this site, anyone can pose a question and have it answered by interested people ranging from “ordinary” to celebrities in their fields. You may be surprised at how effectively popular answers are in setting the stage with a line or two, drawing you in to click on the rest.