How to Write Stories That Boost the Bottom Line
By Ann Wylie
Here’s an argument for storytelling, if I’ve ever heard one: In a trial to determine whether a defendant was guilty of stabbing another man to death in a barroom fight, it didn’t matter what evidence lawyers presented as much as how they presented it.
When prosecutors presented their witnesses in chronological, storytelling order, but the defense’s evidence was out of order, 78 percent of jurors voted to convict, according to a study by Nancy Pennington of the University of Chicago, and Reid Hastie of Northwestern University.
But when the defense team presented its evidence in story order, and the prosecution presented theirs willy-nilly, 69% of jurors voted to acquit — even though the evidence itself was exactly the same in each case.
“Whoever tells the best story wins,” says lawyer and former President John Quincy Adams in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 movie “Amistad.”
Indeed, storytelling can help you grab and keep audience attention, make messages more believable and easier to understand, help people remember your message longer and share it with others, and move people to act.
Here are three steps to developing winning business stories.
1. Find stories.
Looking for a great story? You don’t necessarily need to wring a personal story from an executive.
One place to find stories is in the history of your topic. Specifically, look for the moment of discovery, or the “aha!” moment.
2. Interview for story.
“Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?” “Why?” These questions are journalistic tools that can help us find stories — or condemn us to a lifetime of cranking out just-the-facts-ma’am pieces.
To do more of the former and less of the latter, shift focus. When you’re interviewing for story, Richard Zahler of The Seattle Times suggests, let:
⇐Who become character
⇐What become plot
⇐When become chronology
⇐Where become setting
⇐Why become motivation
Using this approach, “what,” for example, is transformed into questions like:
⇐“What happened next?”
⇐“What were you thinking?”
⇐“What made you say that?”
Those questions can lead beyond just the facts to fascinating stories.
3. Craft your story.
Beginning, middle, end: A chronological approach is the best way to organize most nonfiction narratives.
But instead of simply listing all events in chronological order, find the narrative arc. Move the reader from the conflict to the resolution and, finally, the denouement.
Sound complicated? It’s not.
In fact, Roz Chast summarizes the narrative arc beautifully in a New Yorker cartoon. Called “Story Template,” it includes four panels:
⇐Once upon a time
⇐Happily ever after
In a business context, you might translate Chast’s template to:
⇐Introduction (“Once upon a time”)
⇐Results (“Happily ever after”)
Using this structure, you can develop a narrative lead, a case study, testimonial or a mini story to illustrate your point.
But start with the problem.
That conflict is the essence of a story. So start in the middle of things, at the most dramatic moment of the problem:
⇐The day the tax bill came
⇐The day the bank called your loan
⇐The day you learned the company had shipped its $60,000 circuit board with a fatal flaw
“If you’re advertising fire extinguishers,” wrote David Ogilvy, “open with the flames.”
Write Winning StoriesNext time you need a story to sell your products, services, programs and ideas, try these techniques. They should help you write more and better stories.
Which is important. Because whoever tells the best story wins.
Copyright © 2021 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.