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better language, craft

How to Use the 3 Essential Ps of a Good Story in Nonfiction or Business Writing

As promised in a previous post, this article  describes how to use the essential elements of a good story to make effective nonfiction or business writing.

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Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Granted, these won’t be useful every single time. I mean, you’re not going to tell a story when you’re working on the annual birthday list and you’re sending out an e-mail to remind everyone to check the information in the Google Doc.

But if you’re trying to convince your boss to let you go to the annual professional conference, or trying to encourage someone you’re mentoring to take on a new challenge, or attempting to get the Procurement Department to make a change to their methodology because it’s going to make everyone’s lives better, consider using the 3 Ps of Good Storytelling to get your point across more effectively.

Quick Reminder: A Person in a Place With a Problem

A good story has 3 critical elements: a Person (i.e. a character or characters) in a Place (a setting, location, or world in which the events unfold) with a Problem (some conflict that must be overcome or not).

Not having one of those 3 elements will likely lead to poor audience engagement, leaving them asking Why should I bother reading (or watching) any more of this?

To avoid the abandonment that comes after that question, good stories ensure that all 3 parts are included and are given with the right level of detail.

So – what does this have to do with nonfiction or business writing?

Everything.

How to Use the 3 Ps of Good Storytelling in Nonfiction or Business Writing

Having all 3 Ps means that you’re likely to deliver a message is more powerful – more engaging – ultimately, more effective. And while the 3 Ps may be a necessary condition, they are by no means sufficient. That, too, is a question for another time.

Let’s do this via example, and Show, Don’t Tell exactly how powerful these 3 Ps can be when used properly.

Step 1: Choose A Compelling Combination of Person, Place, and Problem

Our example is going to be a young engineer who is interested in attending a business conference a few states away. Let’s call him Erik, and he’s in his early thirties, a few years into his tenure with a mechanical engineering firm in a mid-size city.

Unfortunately, he’s already maxed out his own continuing education budget from the company for the year. If he’s going to attend, he’s got to try to convince the decision-maker that it will be worthwhile to go over budget now and send him to this conference, rather than, say, waiting another year and attending then.

So we have a Person in the form of our engineer. And he’s in a Place, the setting being the mechanical engineering company he works for. And here’s the Problem: He wants to go to the conference, but the budget is used up.

We might use the 3 Ps like this:

Hi Brandi,

We’ve talked a lot about my need to increase my understanding of some developments in nanomaterials and their applications to our products. [the person]. It’s the future of the industry and our company [the place] and we agreed at my last review that I’m behind. [this is still the person] There’s a conference in a couple of months that targets this exact issue, and if I go I’m sure I would get a lot of benefit. However, I went to that other one earlier this year and used up my allocation already.

I think it’ll be really good and I really don’t want to wait until next year to go. [now we get the real problem]. Can you bend the rules a little for me and pay for my trip to that conference? [calling the boss (the “hero” of the story) to action]

This might be a compelling enough setup that we can create a payoff that would make Brandi (his boss) agree to the request.

But, what if we can find a more compelling Person, Place, and Problem that will make it more likely that the boss will agree to let Erik go?

There are literally dozens of options for each, and with creative combining, we might make thousands of options. But here’s the way I would write it:

Hi Brandi,

The company has been talking a lot recently about new developments in nanomaterials. I’ve been hearing everyone from marketing to testing and the guys on the floor talk about it all the time. [“the company” is the person or character here]. According to the everything on the internet, nanomaterials are the future of the industry, [the place, the industry is moving forward with or without the company]. There’s a conference in a couple of months that targets this exact issue, and if I go I’m sure I would be able to bring back loads of insights that would help us to stay up to date with all our competitors, and perhaps even take the lead in a couple of areas.

If we don’t have representation there this year, we’ll be at least a year behind. [now we get the real problem]. What can we do so that someone attends and keeps up in the loop? [calling the boss (the “hero” of the story) to action]

Can you see how this is exactly the same request, but it has a totally different feel to it?

Here, the person, place, and problem were different, but what also was different was the Call To Action. This is the request at the end, and there’s a pretty subtle shift that you might not have missed. It’s all about who benefits from the Call.

Step 2: Give Your Audience A Call to Action That Makes THEM the Hero, Not YOU

In the first example (Can you bend the rules a little for me and pay for my trip to that conference?), Erik is the hero. He’s the focus: “bend the rules for me and pay for my trip…). And it makes sense, in his mind. He wants to go to the conference. He thinks it’s about him.

But, in this situation, it’s not.

It’s not about him.

He wants to be the hero. But Brandi doesn’t really care about Erik as the hero.

Instead, who does the boss want to be the hero?

That’s right – herself.

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Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

If we can re-write this story with a compelling combination of 3 Ps and put the boss as the hero, the boss is more likely to agree to the request.

We All Want To Be The Hero; Give Your Audience the Chance To Do Just That

This desire is an artifact of our storytelling species’ evolution. Better stories are those that have good heroes. Because we identify with them and want to be them.

So if Erik makes Brandi the hero, what is she going to do? Fail? Hell, no! Not if she can help it. When we re-write the Call to Action in a way that identifies your audience as the one with the power to save the universe, what are they going to do? Everything  they can to achieve victory.

“What can we do so that someone attends and keeps up in the loop?” isn’t presumptive. It doesn’t assume that Erik is the one to go. [We expect that Brandi will nominate him as a reward for his foresight, but there’s no guarantee.] However, putting her in the position of being the hero (the one to devise the solution that they can bust the budget this time to send Erik to the conference) is much more likely to result in the outcome that he wants.

When she comes up with the plan to send him, everyone gets what they need – Erik goes to the conference, the company stays connected, and she gets to take credit for maximum return (knowledge) for minimal cost (slight budget overrun).

It may feel like manipulation, and on the surface, it is, a bit. But it’s honest work. Everyone is better off, because of a better story.

Learn To Apply the 3 Ps of Good Storytelling and Get Superior Results

It’s not rocket science. But when you have a compelling Person, in a relatable Place, with an interesting Problem, you’ll get much better reaction out of your audience. In the end it just might make the difference between launching rockets in your backyard and launching rockets to the moon.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Good luck.

better language, business development, craft, Writing improvement

What “Show, Don’t Tell” Means, and How To Use It To Your Advantage

What “Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means

There’s an adage in fiction writing that goes “Show, don’t tell”. The basic point is that if you want the reader to believe that it’s cold outside, you’ll be much more effective at getting that point across when you include specific, memorable details about what it means to be cold, rather than bland, unemotional facts about the weather.

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Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

For example, you could say “It was -10 degrees outside. Jack thought it was colder than he’d ever seen. He decided to hurry.” That’s probably only going to matter and be relevant to people who’ve actually been outside in weather that’s close to -10 degrees. That’s not a lot of us. So you’ve told us that it’s cold, but we can’t really feel it. Plus, you’ve done all the imagination for us when you told us exactly what Jack decided. We become impartial observers in the scene, and we really don’t care about Jack and what’s happening. We’re disengaged, and we don’t really have a lot of incentive to continue reading.

As an alternative, consider this: “Jack stepped out of the door and immediately everything froze. Even his eyelashes turned brittle in the wind. He spit, and the residue crackled on his lips. His fingers were lead pipes at the end of thicker lead pipes that used to be his arms. Holy shit, he thought. I better make this quick.

Do you see how much more effective that second option is? Here we’ve shown what it means to be cold. The reader can imagine what it would feel like to be in such brutal conditions. They can put themselves in Jack’s place, and that makes a much more engaging narrative.

This writer is going to get people reading the rest of this scene and the next, because those readers are invested in the story. They’ve been given something to do, some reason to read the story, and that’s why they’re going to continue to engage and enjoy the experience.

So – what does that have to do with writing for your business? Whether it’s external-facing materials (case studies, website content, even books and blogs) or internal content (memos, quarterly reports, or task prioritization, for example) consider the principle of Show, don’t tell when you’re drafting for more engagement and greater effectiveness.

How to Use “Show, Don’t Tell” in Business Writing

Let’s say you’re writing up the quarterly earnings report for an insurance company, and you want to highlight the negative effect of the most recent poor experience in claims. You could say “Claims were 3% higher than anticipated last month and 5% higher for the year. We forecast this will lead to lower earnings of $697,000 for the year.”

Yes, it’s factual. Yes, it’s true. But does it show the impact of what’s happened? Or does it require the audience to try and come up the effects on their own? Don’t force them to do that. You’re the expert, you’ve got all the information at your fingertips, use it to tell a good story that drives future action.

Here are three tips for including more “showing” in your business writing, for greater impact than simply “telling”.

“Showing” Tip #1: Get Specific

Instead of saying “claims were 5% higher for the year,” consider adding specific, relevant details that will help the audience to relate this to their past experience or current situation.

“Claims were 5% higher at the end of this month compared to plan, and it’s across the board. The Binkenberger line was 7% higher, the Bergerbinken line was 4% higher, and the Gerberkinben line was 3% higher. Something’s going on. We’ve got to do some investigation immediately.”

That’s a very different situation from the following:

“Claims were 5% higher this month than a year ago, and it’s due to one anomaly. The Zoomfelder account had a million-dollar hit that was in the 95th percentile of unlikelihood. Everything else was right on target. Overall, this is going to affect earnings by $697,000 after reserve release, but we can handle that and explain it easily to stakeholders.”

If you don’t do the appropriate showing for your audience, they won’t know which message to take away. So by adding specific, relevant details, you’ve significantly changed the output message. And you’ve given the audience something easier to connect with than bland facts.

“Showing” Tip #2: Consider Using A Symbolic Representation

Symbolic representations are literary devices like a simile or a metaphor. Use them to create greater impact with the audience by relating what you’re talking about to what they know. “A loss of $697,000 for the year is really going to impact our shareholders. Average shareholders are expecting a $20,000 distribution of profits at the end of the year. This is going to reduce that to $15,000, which is like taking a vacation out of each of their pockets. Be prepared for some blowback.”

When you add symbols, either metaphors (“blowback” is just bad shareholder reactions, they’re not literally going to burn up the home office) or similes (“like taking a vacation…”, you don’t really know what those shareholders are going to do with their dividends) you help make it much more tangible and relevant to the audience.

“Showing ” Tip #3: Add A Little Action

Being more dynamic allows the reader to feel like there’s something happening, something that is on the move, and, as a consequence, something that can be changed, if necessary. If everything’s already done, then there’s nothing for the reader to do. They want to take action. They want to feel like it’s important that they read the report. Give them something to do!

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Photo by Martin Lopez on Pexels.com

“A loss of $697,000 for the year is expected. However, there are 2 potential responses. First, we could accelerate the claims management restructuring program that was slated for next year into this year, potentially offsetting about $150k of that loss a bit sooner. And second, we could cash in some option contracts that we’ve been accumulating slowly and hadn’t planned to monetize for a while. This would add an additional $180k after-tax profit, thus softening the blow a little.”

Now that’s something for the audience to do, and a reason for them to have read the report!

Summary – Three “Showing” Tips

There you go: three tips for more showing, less telling in your writing: Add specific, relevant details; use some symbolic language; and add action for something to do.

 

The Before-And-After

So, what’s the verdict? Consider these two different ways of communicating essentially the same facts, and decide which is more valuable:

Version 1: Claims were 3% higher than anticipated last month and 5% higher for the year. We forecast this will lead to lower earnings of $697,000 for the year.

Or would you rather have the following?

Version 2: Claims were 5% higher at the end of this month compared to plan, and it’s across the board. The Binkenberger line was 7% higher, the Bergerbinken line was 4% higher, and the Gerberkinben line was 3% higher. Something’s going on. We’ve got to do some investigation immediately. In the meantime, we need to deal with the fallout. A loss of $697,000 for the year is really going to impact our shareholders. Average shareholders are expecting a $20,000 distribution of profits at the end of the year. This is going to reduce that to $15,000, which is like taking a vacation out of each of their pockets. Be prepared for some blowback. However, there are 2 potential responses. First, we could accelerate the claims management restructuring program that was slated for next year into this year, potentially offsetting about $150k of that loss a bit sooner. And second, we could cash in some option contracts that we’ve been accumulating slowly and hadn’t planned to monetize for a while. This would add an additional $180k after-tax profit, thus softening the blow a little more. How would you like to proceed?

It should be clear that adding “Show, Don’t Tell” elements to your business communications will make them more powerful, and you more effective as a storyteller.

better language, craft, Writing improvement

The 3 Essential Ps of a Good Story

Stories are the way humans connect to others. Storytelling has been around far longer than blogs, spreadsheets, databases, and even civilizations that have come and gone.

We have inscribed stories on cave walls that have lasted for millennia and will continue for millennia more.

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Wikimedia Commons

We have handed down stories for generations that tell of our origins and predict our future. We use stories to educate (parables), warn of danger (fables), and woo potential lovers (poetry).

We tell stories because they allow us to relate our own experience to the background of our audience. They don’t have to go out and face the saber-toothed tiger themselves; they can simply listen to the victorious hunters returning after the kill and partake of the adventure without the danger.

And stories are powerful, because they trigger emotions, and emotions inspire action much more than pure data ever will.

Learning to tell stories is, therefore, a critical part of being an effective human, no matter what your role in society – parent, authority, or cog in the wheel just trying to get along.

Learn How to Tell Good Stories and Increase Your Influence

Okay, but what makes a good story? How can you tell whether the story you’re about to tell is a good one or not?

We all intuitively know what a good story is, when we read, hear, or watch Star Wars, Harry Potter, Murder on the Orient Express, or even Aesop’s Fables. We see these as great stories because they resonate with us, as readers, and they make us feel something. They intrigue us, they draw us in, they provide us with a compelling reason to continue reading (or watching). Will Harry triumph over Voldemort? Will they find out whodunit? What’s in that big bag, exactly?

All good stories share a few key elements, and they’re not really related to the plot.

The plot is the events which unfold. Mysteries have a plot archetype that’s going to differ from adventures which are going to differ from romances. But no matter what points get touched on and where the betrayals and heartbreaks occur, all good stories have 3 basic elements in common.

If you can learn to embed these three elements into your communications, will make the stories you tell (with or without the supplementation of data) much more effective.

The easiest way to remember this is to thin of the 3 Ps:

The 3 fundamental Elements of a Good Story are a Person, in a Place, with a Problem

A Person (aka “Characters”)

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Photo by willsantt on Pexels.com

This is the most basic of all. You absolutely need some kind of character with something to do. (Usually people but sometimes animals or AI stand in. I use “person” to be able to have the repetitive Ps. You know what I mean.) The narrator is often the main character (who the story revolves around), but sometimes it’s someone close who’s describing what the main character is doing.

A Place (aka “Setting”)

This is the setting or the location of the story. It could be a city, or a magical castle, or a library. It’s also may be a specific time in history: just before the battle of Agincourt, or in the year 3001. The point is, you don’t want to have things happen just “wherever”, they will need to be grounded in some kind of location. Your readers will want to know some specific, relevant details about where this is taking place.

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Photo by Suraphat Nuea-on on Pexels.com

And be careful – don’t overkill by giving loads of minute descriptions that only serve to bore the reader. Make sure you follow the Goldilocks principle: not too much, not too little… just right.

A Problem (aka “Conflict”)

This is the challenge that the person must face and either overcome or fail to overcome at the end of the story. It could be that there’s now a dead man in a train car, and the characters need to figure out who did it before she or he does it again. Or it could be that your everyday kid has been bitten by a radioactive spider, and now he’s got to figure out how to harness his powers to stop an evil mastermind from destroying the city, while not accidentally using those powers to destroy the city.

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Photo by Jaime Spaniol on Unsplash

You’ll need all 3 in order to have the basics of a good story. It’s not guaranteed, but let’s take a look at what happens when one of these elements is missing.

What Happens When One Element Is Missing?

Sure, you could try to write about a generic person and try to make it relevant to everyone across the world. But would it be that effective?

No.

Let me say it again.

No. Definitively. Here’s the problem that arises when you miss out on just one of these elements, even if you include the other two:

A Person In a Place With No Problem

Well, now you just have a character sketch. And it might be a beautiful, literary portrait of what this person looks like and wants and believes. But without a problem, there’s nothing for this person to do. There’s no reason for the story other than presenting a bit of information. And just more information really isn’t that compelling. It’s like a picture on the wall. You can look at it for a minute or two, but then you’re ready to move on. If your writing has no problem, then the readers aren’t going to stay engaged.

A Place and a Problem, but No Person

Generic, all-encompassing stories about problems that affect nations or whole planets may be okay for making a point, but not for keeping a reader interested in finding out what happens next. If you’re telling a fable (a morality tale), maybe you can get away with this. “The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were horribly wicked in all their depravity.” Okay, again, that tells me of the place and the problem, but I don’t really care about anything that’s going on. So what if it’s a problem for that city? There’s nobody for me to connect with, and I won’t continue to read much beyond a page or two.

A Person with a Problem, Without a Place

You may think this is a possibility to still make a good story, but you’d be wrong. The lack of place means that, again, there is no way for the reader to make connections with the person and the problem. The reader’s going to think, “Yeah, but there’s no way that could happen to me. All that is happening in some far-off galaxy.”

Remember, even Star Wars, that was set in a galaxy far, far away, had people, places, and problems we all could relate to: cities and homes, personal relationships, angry youths rebelling against the “unjust” structures of their families, and threats of destruction from without.

When you have no place (no location), it’s sometimes called “white room syndrome”, i.e. “These people were just kind of sitting around in some blank room.” It’s hard to imagine it’s real without those critical, specific details that bring it home for the reader.

Applying the 3 Ps to Nonfiction or Business Writing

Above I promised to include some tips for how to apply the 3P principle to nonfiction or business-related writing. However, this article has gone on longer than I thought it would. So I’m going to give just a teaser and say that the next blog post (I promise no later than 2 days from now) will have those tips. Until then, remember to include the 3Ps when you’re telling a story: a person (character or characters), in a place (setting), had a problem (conflict) to solve. Tell us how they solve it (or don’t), and that’s the basis of a good story.