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.
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?
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:
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:
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.
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.