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.

business development, craft, Writing improvement

How to Organize Your Writing – Work Backwards

You’re not going to believe this, but this (this exact sentence, that started with “You’re not going to believe this, but this [this exact sentence…]”) was written last. Read on to find out how. More importantly, why.

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Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

What’s the hardest part of writing an article (or report, or memo), whether for your industry publication, an online community, your boss or the C-suite, or even just your own blog?

Some will say the hardest part is just getting started.

Like, that big blank canvas is intimidating.

Overwhelming.

Just staring at you, mocking your inability to get out anything reasonable.

For others, it’s the organization.

What do I say first? And then? Where do I end?

For non-writers, the structure can be just as difficult as the execution.

But it doesn’t have to be.

I can’t always help with the blank page syndrome. For organizing your thoughts, though, I can at least give you a structure for how to plan and then actually write the damn thing.

And this is not about how to prove your ideas with appropriate examples, or how to develop an appropriate voice or tone. [We can talk about those other times.] This is a process for you to organize your article creation, one that I apply myself when I sit down to write.

There are about as many methods as there are professional writers’ hands. (Yes, that means some have more than one method. Don’t shoot the messenger.) I have no idea whether this will work for you as well as it does for me. But give it a shot next time you’re wondering how to get started and how to fill up the space on the page. You just might find your next great productivity hack.

With that, let’s talk about how you can develop a quality piece with all of the essential parts: an Executive Summary (or Abstract), an Introduction, the all-important Body Text, and a Conclusion. It might be counter-intuitive, but I’m actually going to recommend you plan your writing completely opposite to how your reader will experience your article.

Start With the End In Mind

Yeah, this is a reference to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And it’s a reference to Start With Why. It’s also the exact answer to the question I ask when people want my help creating content: “Why are you writing, exactly? What do you want your audience to know?”

Just start listing out the lessons you’d like them to take away once they’ve finished reading your article. They don’t have to be in order, they don’t have to be pretty, they just have to be on the page. Refinement comes later.

Prune Out The Less Effective Fluff

If you’re writing an article, you’re going to want one, or at most two, conclusions for your audience to take away afterwards. If you’ve got three or more, you’ll have to do some hard work and pick the one or two that you really want to emphasize.

The great thing about having written all of them out, though, is that you’re not banishing those ideas to the hinterland, never to return again. If they’re related, plan them for another article! If they are absolutely integral to the understanding of the most important one or two, then maybe it’s not an article but should be delivered in a longer format: a series of articles, a White Paper, or even an eBook.

Once you’ve identified your audience’s most important take-away, it’s time to get busy.

Create Strong Roots

You’re still not actually writing at this point. You’re doing more outlining than anything else: these are the two conclusions that lead to final answer #1, and these are the four theories which support those two conclusions, and these are the ten data points which underlie the four theories.

Create your outline as if you were working from the trunk of a tree down into the roots: trace back all of your supporting arguments to their fundamental causes, and map out how you’re going to lead the reader from one item to the next.

When you’ve got a comprehensive outline, then you can start to write the Body Text. But maybe not from the beginning to the end.

Don’t Assume You Have To Write Linearly

Your audience is going to read from the start to the finish, obviously. That’s what we’re trained to do from age six.

But you, as the author, as the sculptor of their journey through your article, don’t need to actually write section one before section two. Write what’s most comfortable first, and get into the rhythm that way. Work out the kinks of your tone and voice with the elements that are most automatic, because you will often spark other ideas you didn’t expect as you’re firing across all your neurons.

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Photo by The Digital Marketing Collaboration on Unsplash

You’ll find that you spend your time working on the various parts of the Body Text in spurts. It’s a little chaotic and can be hard to get used to, especially for linearly-inclined brains.

Don’t be surprised, though, if you end up appreciating this more flexible approach.

For me, even in this article, I’ve been jumping around on the page, moving words and whole paragraphs at a time, sometimes leaping from section to section, to capture what’s coming out of my head at that moment. I don’t want to be rigidly tied to the “first-to-last” order when I’m being creative.

That’s just not how our brains work. They make connections we didn’t see at times we didn’t expect. Go with it. Learn to embrace the volatility and minimal direction. You have time for refinement later.

Write Your Conclusion Next-to-Next-to-Last

Your Conclusion should summarize the important lessons you identified at the beginning. You may have even written the conclusion right after you outlined. That’s okay, and it’s a good check

When you write the conclusion, then, read back over your text and ask yourself, Where did I say that? It’s a good opportunity to check your work and confirm that you’ve gotten everything you wanted into the text itself. If you can’t find where you proved what you wanted to, go back to the text and add a section, drop in an example, or make the logical development of the idea more obvious.

And Your Introduction Next-to-Last

You want to have all of the details of your article (or report or memo) already finished before you write the introduction and conclusion. If you start at the introduction, you might find yourself introducing more ideas than you actually have space for. Then, you’ll end up trying to write the article to conform to the specifications you set out in the introduction. This can lead to output that’s too long, or unfocused, or wandering.

You’ll keep on track by remembering your structure and only writing the Conclusion after you’ve clearly laid out the salient points in the text itself.

After the Body matches the Conclusion, you’ll be able to write the right Introduction, one that appropriately sets the stage for what’s to come. Don’t give away too much information too early, because that’s what the text is for.

Get Feedback and Revise

No matter how clear you think you are in your prose, with your examples, or based on your outline, you probably won’t get it right the first time. Mostly this is due to “inside-the-jar” syndrome. If you’re in a jar of your own problems, you can’t read the label that tells what those problems are, because you’re inside the jar!

You need an outside perspective. Have a friend or colleague read your draft and tell you the ABCD’s: what’s Awkward, what’s Boring, what’s Confusing, or what’s Drifting (off-topic).

Once you have an idea of where you’re going wrong, you can take a look at your article again with impartial eyes, and refine where necessary. This is where you’ll apply your [DELETE] key liberally. It’s there for a reason.

Write the Executive Summary (or Abstract) Last

I know, I know, not everything has an Executive Summary. But many will. They’ll be a 2-sentence description of the article as a teaser, or it might even be an actual abstract or summary if you’re writing a memorandum or report. So if this part isn’t critical to your operations, you shouldn’t be spending a lot of time on it. Putting it last means you aren’t going to be doing unnecessary work if you find in the middle that you topic has changed from what you originally intended.

If everything above hasn’t convinced you not to start writing with the Executive Summary, just remember this quote: “So the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” Sure, the original context was about not being jealous of others, but it works well in this context too. What you work on last will be read first, and what you work on first will be read last.

Wrapping It Up

And you’re done! Here’s a quick review of this efficient method to create an article, report, or memo for whatever audience you’re impacting:

  1. Begin with the end in mind.
  2. Make sure you have chosen a clear message to be delivered.
  3. Work backwards through the outline.
  4. Write the Body in whatever non-linear fashion you choose.
  5. Write the Conclusion as a check that your body text includes everything you wanted.
  6. Write the Introduction.
  7. Get feedback and revise.
  8. If necessary, write the Executive Summary. You can only do this last because even though you might have an idea where it’s going to go, you can’t be sure. Putting this last ensures you set the appropriate stage.

And while you might not yet believe me, think about this: the words that you read first I wrote last, and these, that you’re reading last, I wrote (or planned) first. Game – set – match … Me.

***

Stephan Mathys is an author and communication strategist for actuaries, engineers, and data scientists. His forthcoming eBook is called It’s Not About the Data: 12 Communication Strategies for Left-Brain Professionals. Send an e-mail to stephan@sjmcopywriting.com to get a sneak peek and provide your feedback, which will obviously help improve the final version.

business development, craft, data and metrics

Critique My Code, Please

note, this article was originally published on LinkedIn

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Image by Jae Rue from Pixabay

 

ROUTINE ShouldYouHireAWriter(ContentCalendar, SubjectMatterExpertList)

DIM ContentCalendar AS array(ContentIndex, ProductionDate, ContentType, SkillRequired, LeadTime)

DIM SubjectMatterExpertList AS array(Name, AreaOfExpertise, WritingSkill, AvailableHours)

FOR EACH ContentIndex IN ContentCalendar

    FOR EACH Name IN SubjectMatterExpertList

        IF Professionals.WritingSkill < ContentCalendar.SkillRequired THEN

ShouldYouHireAWriter = TRUE

            CALL Hire(Writer(ContentType, SkillRequired))

            ENDIF

        ELSE IF Professionals.AvailableHours < ContentCalendar.LeadTime THEN

ShouldYouHireAWriter = TRUE

            CALL Hire(Writer(ContentType, AvailableHours))

            ENDIF

        ELSE ShouldYouHireAWriter = FALSE

        NEXT SubjectMatterExpertList.Name

    NEXT ContentCalendar.ContentIndex

END SUB

***

Let me Real-People-Speak that for you all.

For those who aren’t programmers, here’s what this says.

If you’ve got some kind of content your marketing team has decided is necessary to the essential function of your business (a Case Study, perhaps, or a blog post about a new product you’re developing for a growing market), you may want to get some outside help for that.

But – how do you decide whether or not to engage that outside professional? I have two criteria:

1) Do you have skill in that type of content?

Maybe you’ve never written a blog post before. Maybe you’ve never written anything before. Your skill is going to be defined not only by your writing skill, but your professional area. Are you a programmer? Maybe you shouldn’t be writing about end-user support, even though you’ve been asked to. If your skill is not up to what’s required of the piece of content, you should probably hire a writer.

2) Do you have enough time to do it?

Perhaps you’re neck-deep in requirements and coding for that very same model update that you’ve got to get out before quarter-end, and you know that taking ten hours of your time in the next month to write this stupid case study just isn’t in your budget. At that point, perhaps you need to spend less time writing and outsource that project. A good one could potentially cut your ten hours of drafting, revision, and review into a one-hour interview. What else could you produce in those nine hours? Might it be better to let you specialize there?

This mini-program essentially cycles through each piece of content and asks those two questions. Yes, it’s written a little facetiously. I know the syntax is probably way off, and there are clearly undefined subroutines that, should I try to get this to compile, would be throwing off errors like the Bad News Bears. Give me a break, I haven’t actually coded anything in like 6 months.

But the point is to show that there are pretty good reasons why you might look to outside help. And this routine would apply not only to writing content, it should apply to everything you do. [I use content creation because, frankly, that’s what I’m neck-deep in right now.]

First, evaluate whether your team has the necessary skill to complete the project upcoming. If not, you’re going to need some help.

Once you decide you do have the skill, determine if they have enough time to complete it. If not, you’re going to need some help.

And “need some help” doesn’t always mean hiring a professional to do that exact thing you want done, whether it’s building a retaining wall, shooting a promotional video, or even meeting with a client.

Sometimes, you might wish to hire another full-time person to do those specific tasks. Others, it might be that you should remove some of the lower-level tasks on your professional’s to-do list by reassigning them, thus freeing up more time in that high-level production arena.

The point is, you have options. Remember that, and don’t just assume that everyone you already employ can do everything. That’s why we’ve created this specialization economy, anyway. You should take advantage of it.

***

Stephan Mathys is a technical content writer for really smart professionals in the actuarial, data science, and engineering fields. You can reach him with questions about this article or his book, The Handbook of Content Marketing, at stephan@sjmcopywriting.com.