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There are no boring stories, only boring storytellers

August 31, 2011

What makes a good story? Well, let me try and answer with a story.

Last week, one of my team members was writing a case study about someone who has chosen contracting as a career, instead of a permanent role.

The first paragraph told me how long he’d been contracting for and where he was working. I practically fell asleep reading it.

When I said this to my team member, she protested that it was a boring story in the first place. Now I’ll admit, there are more exciting histories to tell (for example, I am working on a piece about post-retirement income structures – now that’s fun). But I would argue that everyone is interesting, as long as we get the story-telling right.

In the end, I sat down and asked my colleague to tell me about this guy, as though we were at the pub. (A good basis, as we are well-practiced in that activity). She said he was working in quite a senior government job a few years back, and saw all these other people coming in to the department, getting paid more and working on cool stuff. In the end he decided to give up the security of his job, and take up contracting instead – a move which he doesn’t regret.

Ok, I said, so why don’t you start the story that way? And the second draft was a hundred times better. It relayed an experience, not a CV summary. It painted a situation and emotion we could all relate to – being frustrated, taking a risk, seeing it pay off.

Unfortunately, people in business tend to lose sight of stories. They have the same view that my team member started out with – they’re not writing about an exciting or emotional topic, so telling it straight is the only option.

But that’s not entirely true. Even quite technical content can be brought to life with case studies and examples.

I can tell you that putting an extra $20 a week into your superannuation will give you an extra $50,000 when you retire (I made that up by the way, but I think it’s close).

But if I tell you that putting aside the cost of a couple of Friday night drinks will mean you can do a first-class trip to Europe later on, it’s more appealing. Long lunches in France, coffee and pastries in Italy, beer and chocolate in Belgium… how good does retirement sound?

And while the afore-mentioned ‘post-retirement income structures’ aren’t exciting at first glance, having a decent income when you’re older is a pretty compelling prospect.

I don’t know if there is a ‘formula’ for good story-telling, but I can share a few tips:

  • Start strongly. Don’t lead up to the most interesting part; dive right in with it. Then explain the details afterwards.
  • Tell it to a friend in the pub. Well, imagine you are at the pub, not at your desk. Stories should be conversational, and reflect the way we speak to each other.
  • Relate it back to emotions. You want the audience to empathise and relate it to their own experiences, so you need to tell how the person felt in that situation.
  • Use concrete details and images. Don’t just talk about a trip to Europe, talk about the coffee and pastries you’ll enjoy there.

And if you are still having trouble, I recommend a practice run over a glass of wine at the pub.

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