Storytelling techniques employed by writers of fiction and screenplays can be used to make business writing more lively and readable. Including the building blocks of good stories in your blogs and news releases can revive your writing and bring the human element to the forefront.
Good stories have four key elements: an account of events, overarching meaning, interesting people, and conflict that changes the story’s characters. Let’s explore those.
The first story element is the most basic. Stories are about something happening–a sequence or account of events. Here’s an example of a simple account of events:
The Committee on Sustainability met on Tuesday. The chair opened the meeting with a report about the new drought-tolerant landscaping. The chair then showed a chart depicting the decrease in water use, when comparing the old, grassy landscape with the new, drought-tolerant one. Then, he talked about how much money they had saved in water and gardening bills, because of the new landscape.
Boring, isn’t it? Because we’re missing the meaning, and we haven’t been given any reason to care about the committee or the outcome. A story can’t just be about faceless entities. We need to know what the story means, and we have to care about the humans in the story. Let’s try it again.
Entrepreneur and environmentalist William Weene, chair of the Committee on Sustainability, loves beautiful, lush lawns. He just doesn’t think they belong in Southern California. For the past six months, Ween has overseen the removal of rolling lawns and water-guzzling East Coast plants surrounding the firm’s headquarters. “We’re wasting water, over-fertilizing the soil, destroying native habitats and contributing to air pollution because of the upkeep,” he said at the committee’s meeting on Tuesday. “As a result of changing the landscaping, we’ve seen a 60 percent decrease in water use and resulting decrease in water and maintenance bills,” he said.
Better, right? Now we care about the character a little more, and we understand the meaning and what is at stake. This is good, but we’re not there yet. We’re still missing the fourth element of a story–the characters must change as a result of conflict. In fiction, when a character waltzes through a story unaffected by the events and sufferings he sees and endures, we call that an adventure. Let’s try it again, this time with conflict.
Entrepreneur and environmentalist William Weene knows that not everyone on his Committee for Sustainability loves the new native landscaping he installed, replacing the rolling lawn and water-guzzling East Coast plants surrounding his firm’s headquarters. They complain to him about the sparseness of the plants in the summer, the dusty color palette and the short-lived flowering season. Despite the adversity, Weene is determined to make the change. “We’re wasting water, over-fertilizing the soil, destroying native habitats and contributing to air pollution because of the upkeep,” he said at the committee’s meeting on Tuesday. Still, he heard the rumblings of discontent, particularly from his father, who founded the company. But Weene had one more card up his sleeve. He pulled up his final slide, sure he could win over even the most die-hard turf grass lover with this last chart. “As a result of changing the landscaping, we’ve seen a 60 percent decrease in water use and resulting decrease in water and maintenance bills,” he said. Eyebrows raised around the room, and a few more heads nodded. “Now I get it,” his father said. “Money talks.”
A story is more than just a retelling of what happened. A good story is an account of events connected by meaning, about interesting humans we care about, who change as a result of those events. Our goal is not to relive the event but to tell the best parts of it and infuse it with meaning. Making sure that the stories we tell contain these four story elements can help us earn and keep more readers of our business or organizational writing.