7 darn good reasons why you should tell me a story

Word count: 748 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

“Please, tell me a story.” That’s the devout plea of many of your readers, even non-fiction ones. And, if you tell them a good story, they’ll keep on reading….

A group of judges is gathered in court. But instead of looking grand and imperial in their robes, they appear to be naked. And, puzzlingly, they are arrayed, under blankets, in a selection of beds spread out behind the bench.

No, let me reassure you this didn’t happen in real life. It’s simply a cartoon from the New Yorker. A lone lawyer stands at a microphone in front of the justices receiving instructions. The caption? “O.K., counsellor, we heard your argument. Now tell us a story.”

Most parents of three-year-olds can probably relate to this cartoon. But so should you!  Telling stories — and telling them well — is probably the single most important job facing any writer. And guess what? Stories aren’t just for novelists. They’re for everyone from the CEO to his or her most junior communications staffer.

Here are 7 reasons why you should work hard at telling more stories in your non-fiction writing:

1) Stories have a natural rhythm. Tell a story and you’ll automatically start with the most interesting material. At the same time, you’ll give details exactly where they belong and you’ll end by reinforcing the key point you want to make. This kind of structure gives you a big, paint-by-numbers approach to your work. It helps make writing easier and less painful.

2) Stories humanize the realities of the business world. Have you ever sat through speeches and started to drift off into ZZZZZ-land as the speakers rambled on about statistics or core values? And, yet, didn’t you snap to attention when they suddenly told you a story about something that happened in the office or, better yet, a story about their own non-work lives? We’re all hardwired to love stories. Growing up and getting a serious job doesn’t change that one iota.

3) Stories carry a sense of momentum; they have their own natural tension. The middle of a good story leaves the reader wondering, “Yeah, and what happened, next?” As a writer, isn’t that exactly what you want — readers desperate for your next sentence?

4) Stories are sticky, or, in other words, memorable. More than 16 years ago (I know the timeframe because it was before my children were born) I heard a radio interview with career coach Barbara Sher, author of I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What it Was. This woman is a masterful speaker and I’ll never forget her story about a cab driver who wanted to become a cake baker. Sher advised the driver to launch her career by baking “surprise” and anonymous cakes for major public events. Turns out, the woman succeeded by having one of her cakes cause a big (and positive) sensation at an event in Chicago. While I wouldn’t advise that approach now, post 9/11, I highly recommend telling memorable stories. That I remembered this cake anecdote for 16 years should be a testament to the theory.

5) Stories force you to use concrete language. People get into writing trouble when they start using too many abstract words. You know what I mean — Superman’s motto of “truth, justice, and the American Way” is a great example of abstract language. Instead, better writers talk about things you can touch, taste, smell and hear — concrete words. Such language helps create visual images in the readers’ minds. If I say the word “association” do you get a clear visual image? Probably not! But if I say, desk, or flower or dog, your mind’s eye likely creates a picture. Add even a simple verb — such as, “sits,” “smells” or “barks” and the picture is clearer. Stories will keep you in the world of the concrete. Strong visual images = good writing.

6) Stories will help make your writing more believable. I don’t know about you but I’ve always been astonished by the number of movies and TV shows that make a big deal about being based on true stories. (Frankly, I always think good fiction is more amazing!) But there’s something in the human psyche that loves the concept of being true to life. Tell your own stories and you’ll be satisfying a basic human need.

7) Stories allow people to persuade themselves of the point you’re trying to make. You then simply become the person who is presenting the evidence. And the better your stories, the more persuasive you will be.

Next week: I’ll go beyond the whys and explain how to tell more stories in your non-fiction writing.