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.

rocket nasa liftoff royalty free
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Good luck.

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.

arts, nonprofit profile, regional

Nonprofit Profile – Mid-America Arts Alliance

Summary

 The Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA) is a regional arts council based in Kansas City. The M-AAA supplies grant funding, professional development, and other support to the arts throughout a 6-state region: Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. With an annual budget around $4.1 million, it served over 1,500 artists and impacted over 467,000 individuals in 2017.

 

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More Art for More People

 

What the M-AAA does

 There are four main areas of program expenses for the M-AAA: grants, exhibitions, professional development, and artist business development.

Grants            The M-AAA provides grants through two avenues: directly to artists via Artistic Innovations, and to organizations presenting public events through the Regional Touring Program. Details are too much for this space, please do check out their web page.

 Exhibitions                In partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the M-AAA presents touring exhibits across the country. These can be seen from Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas, where the M-AAA traditionally supports, all the way to Maine, Florida, Alaska, and Arizona. These truly do have national reach.

And the M-AAA also combines resources with ExhibitsUSA to bring varied exhibitions to varied audiences. They can cover subjects ranging from Johnny Cash to Hawaiian shirts to microfocus images of insects.

More information on exhibitions, including a schedule, can be found here.

Professional Development             The ENGAGE program currently operates only in Kansas City and Houston. Through this program, M-AAA provides development resources for local small to mid-size organizations. Resources enhance the knowledge base regarding governance, fundraising, financial management, and community engagement. The goal is to increase the efficiency of these groups, ensure greater impact, and enable long-term sustainability.

Artist Development             The Artist INC program takes a different approach. This works with individual artists not on their craft (how to paint more realistically) but on their business (how to make it as a professional artist). The programs run independently in various cities. Currently they are available in Argenta and Springdale Arkansas; Austin and Houston, Texas; Lawrence, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

More information on ENGAGE and Artist INC at this link.

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A mural in Joplin, MO

 

Who Supports Them

Foundations, individual donors, and grants. There is a nearly equal split currently between grant money ($1.2 million), contracted services ($1.3 million), and contributions ($1.4 million). This feels like a very balanced portfolio. Kudos to the M-AAA for ensuring that there is no single source of funding that everything hangs upon.

Within the individual donors listed on the 2017 Annual Report, I notice a few names in the $100,000+ category (foundations all), and, as could be expected, increasing numbers as the size decreases. However, I expected a greater number of smaller (<$500) donors. There were only 53 listed; this seems small for an organization receiving over a million dollars in contributions. Perhaps there is an opportunity to expand the M-AAA’s reach to more individuals and broaden their base of support.

 

Challenges On the Horizon

 Because a major funding source is grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, budgetary restrictions there will certainly be felt at the regional level.

Plus, as more and more of our society’s interactions take place across online / mobile platforms, I foresee that organizations like this could end up fighting to justify traditional art forms. Rather than actually expanding artwork, supporting artists, and enhancing local groups, the M-AAA may have to “go back to the beginning”, so to speak, and advocate for art itself. That would certainly feel like a bit of a setback.

 

Opportunities Awaiting

 I’m encouraged, however, by the varied programs that M-AAA is currently investing in. Since ENGAGE is only in two locations, expansion to more major metropolitan areas within their geographic footprint is a natural step.

And with the Artist INC also in a similar growth mode, replication of this process throughout not only the region but across the country would be a great way to broaden the M-AAA’s impact and reach.

Despite the potential for increased online engagement to drive down in-person artistic participation, there is a large opportunity for M-AAA and other similar programs to harness mobile platforms for enhancement of their experiences. Perhaps M-AAA could partner not just with artists, but business collaborators, marketing agencies, app developers, and others on the forefront of future technology to ensure their programs integrate these recent developments. Rather than feeling intimidated by uncertain losses, the M-AAA could use these channels to drive more attendance at exhibitions and galleries; spread word-of-mouth farther and faster than ever before; and create interactive programs which harness social media rather than compete with it.

 

Conclusion

I think regional arts agencies like M-AAA have an incredible potential for the future. And, with community engagement and expanding artistic impact at the forefront, they will continue to impact lives in innumerable ways. Especially as they continue to promote plans like travel reimbursement funds available to artists residing more than 150 miles from Kansas City. More programs like this, with more funding for more artists, will truly help the M-AAA make More Art for More People.

 

Bonus

Check out the video made to celebrate 50 years of the National Endowment for the Arts.