I’ve been writing professionally for over 20 years and providing feedback to other writers for at least 15 of those years. Somewhere along the line, I realized 95% of the feedback I was giving writers could be explained by four simple principles of good communication. I call them my story cheat codes.
Becoming a better writer is a never ending journey. And after all these years, I still find myself going back again and again to test what I’ve just written against these four principles.
1. Use words people can see and feel
Whatever your favorite blog is, 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 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 consumer’s favorite online content, we use 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 very modern world, but we still share the same brain with 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 brains to figure out what that means. They’re wired to immediately understand words that represent things in the real world we can see, feel, taste and smell like back rubs and chunky tomato sauce. So, though being able to think about abstract concepts like “optimal efficiency” has been incredibly useful for creating ideas, it is a terrible way to communicate your ideas to others. Apple. Chalkboard. Janet Jackson. Puppy Breath. These are the 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.
2. If you want to change a mind, change a metaphor
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 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”).
Persuasive 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 were once fresh metaphors that are long past their “use-by” date. 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.
Metaphors bypass the rational center and speak directly to the emotional center of the brain. They help our brains turn dry, abstract concepts like “fast” into concrete imagery we can feel, 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 surfing fuels our drive to deliver the best boards 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.
3. Great storytellers are great story collectors
The overarching point of Malcom Gladwell’s book “Blink” is that most of our decisions 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 you need to look out for.
To convince us of this point, he assembled over 50 different stories that prove out, chapter after chapter, different aspects of his 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, non-fiction book, or PowerPoint deck, is a collection of stories that show the reader or listener 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 your reader that. Then spend the next 4 paragraphs sharing stories of examples in the real world that show that your claim is true.
4. Start with the story of the a-ha! moment
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 listening to 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 only Mr. Lehrer has discovered. Crack open any best selling non-fiction book by authors like Malcom Gladwell, Christopher McDougal or Michael Pollen and you’ll notice that every chapter begins with a personal story that wakes the reader up to the point they’ll eventually make in that chapter.
The personal story is the a-ha moment when you, or somebody else, first realized the insight you are about to reveal to the reader. 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
According to a recent study by the Journal of Patient Safety, patients may experience much higher adverse outcomes from hospital care then previously reported.
Are smart phones getting too complex? I’d argue that so many features and functionality are now being built into phones that they are actually becoming harder to use.
The road to becoming a doctor is long and arduous: years of study, exhausting training, and, in many countries, significant cost. So why would a doctor change fields and become a management consultant?