May program report: Storytelling Techniques for Any Writer

Article by Josh Stubbs, Photos by Marika Piehler

Published: June 2012

The final program meeting of the 2011/2012 season was presented by Hazel MacClement. Her background in broadcast media (Olsen on Your Side, CBC Daybreak) established her eye for a good story. She’s made a career out of telling other people’s stories. Today Hazel works for the federal government as communications officer with Aboriginal Affairs.

Perhaps as a result of her journalistic curiosity, the presenter polled the audience about what brought joy to their writing. The recurring theme was enjoying the learning process and then distilling that information to something clear and concise. As journalist, Hazel pointed out that the same qualities are used by storytellers to craft information into direct and compelling narratives.

She grabbed us with the unexpected, a love story narrated by Morgan Freeman. Listen to his compelling intro to March of the Penguins.

She engaged us with footage and revealed techniques that should make technical communication more understandable, interesting, and relevant.

As an example of effective storytelling, she presented her favorite clip from her career in television journalism. “Where’s Ruby?” told the story of a missing dog. The viewer was lead through a series of clues and revelations. The camera followed the dog owner from bystander to shop owner to patrons to the unlocked apartment where Ruby’s barks were heard. A break-in reunited dog with owner, capped with tears of joy—even in the room.

While not everyone has a knack for telling a good story, Hazel shares her 12-storytelling tips:

1 Use characters: Characters are what draw a reader in. In technical writing, a character can be used to show why a reader might need to perform an action or follow a procedure.
2 Find focus: Most stories can be reduced to three words of less. “Where’s Ruby?” can be summed up as “Man Loses Dog”.
3 Look for surprises: While watching Ruby’s story, the audience watched, nodded, smiled and even laughed a certain points. Watch for the unexpected to occur in your research. If it interests or engages you, it will probably interest or engage your reader.
4 Challenge assumptions: When telling a story or writing a document, be prepared to dig deeper and ask questions about information that you first receive.
5 Remember your audience: Stories aired at 5:00pm would change if aired at 6:00pm and might not run at 11:00pm. A piece on trendy children’s shoes probably relates best with the late afternoon viewing audience. A great piece of writing may never reach a reader if it falls outside of the reader’s needs.
6 Do your homework: Think of every possible question that a reader might have and then find a way to answer it. You may be writing to a reader who is already very knowledgeable about the topic.
7 Write in layers: Onions, like stories, reveal themselves one layer at a time. “Where’s Ruby” would not be as memorable if the story opened with “A man lost his dog and then found it again. Here’s how it happened.” Provide readers the information they need in the order they need it.
8 Use rules of three: Stories should have a beginning, middle and end. Technical writers can use the same format with an introduction (why is this task being performed or what does the reader need to learn), a body (how to perform the task or what content the reader requires) and a conclusion (the reader has reached the goal, what other learning or next steps might be needed).
9 Use clear simple language: The story or information should be enough to compel and engage the reader. Fanciful language can get in the way of this.
10 Read your text out loud: Direct writing should sound like a friend speaking to you. This is an easy way to test that.
11 Love your editor: Many writers fear editors but they are here to help you. A second set of fresh eyes can find new places to improve a document.
12 Enjoy the process: It makes following all the other steps a lot easier.

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