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.

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?


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.

boy child clouds kid
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on

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

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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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.


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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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 to get a sneak peek and provide your feedback, which will obviously help improve the final version.

craft, personal development

One Step To Being A Better Person

How many different motivational speakers and life coaches are in the world today? Approximately a brazillion.

I counted.

How many of them actually have something meaningful to say for your life?

Maybe 5 or 6.

Who are they?

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Who knows. Those 5 or 6 will be different for everyone, and will touch everyone in a different way, at different times of their lives, impacting different spheres of experience: relationships, health, spirituality, career, finance, hobbies & play, etc.

I don’t know who they are, but I guarantee you they all have some 7 steps to success and happiness.

Their own flavor of 13 tips for living a better life.

A “27-point Foolproof Path to Fabulousness!”

Or something.

Do they work?


For the right people

At the right time.

But for you?

Right now?

Not likely.

You want my advice? Just be a better person.


I was reading Reddit and came across this nugget of self-hate. [] I’m not going to quote it, but it’s basically some guy in his early 20s complaining that he doesn’t know how other people do it. Everyone else seems to be better than him, and he wonders why.

And how.

How are they better people than him?

I offered my (admittedly unsolicited) advice with 5 steps to being a better person. I will, however, quote myself, because I think it’s worthwhile to have the discussion.

What to do? Stop reading “self-help” books that are written to exploit your addiction to “self-improvement”. The industry only exists to convince you that you’re going to get better if you just buy their next new source of tips and tricks. In reality, they want to sell you more books because, well, they don’t sell you any more books if you actually, you know, HELP YOURSELF to get better. You want 5 simple steps? Here, here’s 5 steps to becoming a better person:

  1. Read Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. It’s not a self-help book, but it is about being good with yourself.

  2. Go for a walk an hour a day, every day, for a year. No music, no audiobook, but just think.

  3. Write in a journal, not on the internet. Nobody here cares about you. you are the only one who does, so you are the only one who needs to know your thoughts.

  4. Stop smoking dope and drinking alcohol. You’re poisoning yourself and using intoxication to mask your real feelings.

  5. Stop swearing. It’s laziness. Put in the mental effort to think of a real insult. Swearing is simple, so it’s the mark of a simpleton. Be better than that.

So that’s my advice. But again, it’s “5 Steps to Being A Better Person”. And I realized, he doesn’t need 5 steps.

He doesn’t even need 3.

Or 2.

He, and everyone else, just needs ONE STEP to become a better person.

Are you ready?

It’s pretty radical an idea.

One that might revolutionize the self-help industry.

Here it is:


Just be better.

That’s it.

Don’t like who you are?


Don’t like your attitude?

Change it.

Don’t like your emotions?

Change them.

Don’t like your anger?

Change it.

Recognize that you are choosing, every moment of every day, what you are going to do with that moment and that day.

If you don’t like what you’ve chosen, choose differently.

Be different.


Be a better person.

I’m not the only one saying this. Here’s the Holstee Manifesto, which says a lot of the same stuff, in a pretty picture:


The Holstee Manifesto, available at

Just be that better person.

No, it’s not easy.

It’s not laid out in 5, or 17, or 49 “simple” steps. Those specific steps might have worked for them. They might have worked, somewhat, for others around the world. But I’m 99.9% confident they won’t work for you.

It’s not that simple.

Because it can’t be.

My 5 steps don’t apply to you. They can’t. It’s impossible.

I don’t know what you want, where you’re starting from, and what you’re willing to put in to get there.

Only you know that.

Only you know what’s going to impact you.

Only you know what’s going to work.

And only you can do the work.

So –

Stop looking for answers in a book, or on a website, or in a seminar.

Stop searching for tips on how to be better, and just … start … being better.

Right now.

Don’t wait.

Nobody else is going to do it for you.


Stephan is a writer, editor, speaker, and publisher living in St. Louis, Missouri. His fiction (and fiction-ish) can be found at and at