I’ve been writing professionally for over 20 years. I’ve been providing feedback to writers for at least 15 of those years. Over that time, I’ve come to realize that 95% of the feedback I give can be explained by four simple rules to great storytelling. I call them my story cheat codes. After 20 years, I’m still learning how to be a better writer. It’s a never-ending journey. But after all these years, I still find myself going back again and again to these four rules. Start following them today and your writing will start improving tomorrow.
-Brian Hennessy, Co-Founder and CEO of Talkoot
CHEAT CODE #1:
USE WORDS PEOPLE CAN SEE AND FEEL
Whatever your favorite blog, you follow it because it’s packed full of content that naturally attracts your attention: well-told stories of real events full of real people, places and things. Audiences naturally gather around that type of content. Audiences don’t naturally gather around marketing hyperbole like “relentless innovation” and “unparalleled performance.” At best, they put up with it long enough to buy what they need, then quickly click back to their favorite blog, podcast or social feed.
To create content that measures up to consumers’ favorite online content, Thread, uses this simple rule:
If you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying it out loud in a face-to-face conversation with a friend, don’t put it in writing.
We live in a highly advanced world full of digital networks and self driving cars, but neurologically, we’re still wired just like our ancestors who wandered around the steppe hunting gazelles in fur underwear. While our world is filled with abstract concepts like “enhanced customer engagement,” it is very hard for our stone age minds to figure out what that means. Our brains are built to immediately understand concrete words that represent things in the real world we can see, feel, taste and smell, like “back rubs” and “chunky tomato sauce.”
Though being able to think about abstract concepts like “representative democracy” has been incredibly useful, it is a terrible way to communicate ideas to others. Apple. Chalkboard. Janet Jackson. Puppy fur. These are the concrete words our brains like best, which is why all our favorite books, songs, jokes and conversations are full of them.
If your listener can’t see, feel, taste or smell the words you’re using, try trading them out for concrete words.
DON’T: “Popcorn is very unhealthy.”
DO: “A medium-size ‘butter’ popcorn contains more fat than bacon-and-eggs, a big mac, fries, and a steak, combined.”
DON’T: “This lightest-in-class insulated vest will deliver maximum performance and superior comfort.”
DO: It’s the lightest vest we’ve ever made, packs down to the size of your fist and can still keep you warm in 30-degree temps.
DON’T: “Our Maxum LS shirt integrates cutting-edge design, construction and fabric technologies.”
DO: “It breathes. It blocks sun. It keeps your essentials stowed. About the only thing this shirt doesn’t do is set up the tent for you.”
CHEAT CODE #2:
CHANGE A METAPHOR, CHANGE A MIND
When something is described as “big,” the next natural question is, “compared to what?” When it’s described as “elephant-sized” or “wide-open-sky big,” people understand right away. That’s because our brains are hardwired to think in metaphor. We understand new or abstract ideas (like “big”) by connecting them with concrete things we can picture in our heads (like “elephants” and “wide open skies”).
Effective communication uses metaphor to help people understand what it’s like in terms they’re already familiar with. But the trick with using metaphor is not to slip into tired clichés, like “groundbreaking innovation” or “take it to the next level,” which actually prompt readers to stop paying attention. Clichés like these were once fresh metaphors that have long since lost their power to communicate. Replace them with metaphors that are fresh and relevant, while still being clear.
A deeper dive on metaphor:
There are two parts of the brain that process language: the rational center and the emotional center. Anything that motivates us stimulates the emotional center which, in turn, releases dopamine, also known as the motivation chemical.
Metaphors bypass the rational center of the brain and speak directly to the emotional center of the brain. Information must be converted into metaphor before people can truly feel it in a way that motivates action. In other words, metaphors are the most efficient way to convert words into motivation.
Metaphors help our brains turn dry, abstract concepts like “fast” into concrete images and feelings we can better understand, like “a hurricane.” These metaphors trigger an emotional response that motivates action.
DON’T: The ultimate ride for the whole family.
DO: It’s like bungee jumping, but the rush lasts all afternoon.
DON’T: Provides unrivaled traction.
DO: Bites into slippery, moss-covered rocks.
DON’T: Our passion for kiting fuels our drive to deliver the best kites for any discipline.
DO: We were mad scientists of weird boards and weird shapes. Then every once in a while you’d find something that worked.
DON’T: Drifting down the Yellowstone is an amazing experience words cannot describe.
DO: Drifting down the Yellowstone is a feeling your kids will never be able to pull up on a smartphone or drop in a shopping bag.
DON’T: Ergonomic bootie construction provides enhanced fit and comfort.
DO: We craft left- and right-foot-specific boots for the most natural fit because having cramped little ballerina feet leads to miserable days on the trail.
CHEAT CODE #3:
GREAT STORYTELLERS ARE GREAT STORY COLLECTORS
The overarching point of Malcom Gladwell’s book “Blink” is that most of our decision making happens unconsciously in the precious split seconds after we’re confronted with a choice. His lesson: while our ability to form split-second decisions is a positive adaptation that has kept us alive for thousands of years, it also has unintended consequences we need to look out for.
To convince us of this point, he assembled over 50 different stories that prove different aspects of his main thesis. Why does he spend so much time offering real world examples? Why, like most business communication, doesn’t he just make his point and move on?
A great piece of persuasive communication, whether it’s a presentation, novel, video or essay, is an assembly of stories that show the reader or listener examples in the real world that what you’re trying to tell them is true.
A rule of thumb I usually tell my writers is your work should contain 90% “showing” and 10% “telling.” If you want to tell people that stories change behavior, spend one sentence telling that to your reader. Then spend the next four paragraphs sharing stories of examples in the real world that show that your claim is true.
CHEAT CODE #4:
MALCOM GLADWELL’S A-HA MOMENT
Open up any of Malcom Gladwell’s books to the first page of any chapter and you’ll find the same thing over and over again: A personal story of the a-ha moment when he, or someone else, first realized the insight the rest of the chapter explains.
Award-winning journalist Jonah Lehrer begins his book “How We Decide” with these words: “I was flying a Boeing 737 into Tokyo Narita International Airport when the left engine caught on fire.” A personal story tricks the brain into thinking it’s reading a story about a person (which it likes) instead of a story about an idea or thing (which it naturally resists).
Lehrer deliberately brings the reader along for his a-ha moment because he knows that we human beings only learn through experience, whether our own or someone else’s. Sharing the story of when the light bulb went off for him gets readers interested, invested, and perhaps most importantly, unaware that they’re about to learn something new.
This isn’t a trick that Lehrer alone has discovered. Crack open any best-selling non-fiction book by an author like Malcom Gladwell, Christopher McDougall or Michael Pollan and you’ll notice that every chapter begins with a personal story that wakes the reader up to the point they’ll eventually come across later in that chapter.
Placing the insight into the experience of the reader is the most important part of persuasion. We’ll quickly forget a statistic that says 48% of happiness is inherited, but think for days about a story we heard about researchers at the University of Minnesota who tracked identical twins that were separated as infants and raised by separate families. These genetic carbon copies brought up in different environments suddenly bring meaning to the abstract concept of nature versus nurture. We want to know what happens to those twins.
As a rule, readers want to be shown stories, not told facts. When we place abstract ideas in the context of a personal story, the experience shifts from teacher-student to we’re all students here, and we’re all learning together.
“For days, I’d been searching Mexico’s Sierra Madre for the phantom known as ‘Caballo Blanco’ – the White Horse.”
–Christopher McDougall, “Born to Run”
“He thanked her and took a sip. And that was the last thing he remembered until he woke up, disoriented, lying in a hotel bathroom, his body submerged in ice.”
–Chip Heath and Dan Heath, “Made to Stick”
“To take the wheel of a clattering 1975 International Harvester tractor through an Iowa cornfield during the first week of May is like trying to steer a boat through a softly rolling sea of dark chocolate.”
–Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”
“It was the middle of the night, and John Edson’s brain was frazzled with jet lag. This was his fifth trip to Beijing in just a few months, and his circadian rhythm was all out of whack.”
–Fast Company on the a-ha moment for Onetime, the Apple Watch app
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