Use real-life stories to attract—and keep—readers
Everyone loves the opening "once upon a time." People love stories—tales about real people doing real things. We can't resist them.
But the reverse is also true. Employees hate—and will not read—lengthy pieces about the company's new processes. How many times have you curled up on a Sunday afternoon with the latest article on Six Sigma or Continuous Quality Improvement? And yet, those stories are important to your organization's need to convey business strategies.
How do we resolve this dilemma?
In our writing seminars, we urge editors to consider the anecdotal approach to news writing—an approach made famous by Wall Street Journal
. This approach, if done correctly, can turn the most complex piece into a fast and more interesting read. So, how do you construct an anecdotal lead?
Find some good stories
This sounds like a no-brainer, but you'd be amazed (or maybe not) at how many good stories get overlooked. Find someone in your organization whose life is being affected by the Six Sigma process or the new corporate strategy. Talk with someone who's using the latest product or taking advantage of the new service. Then use that person's tale to represent the whole.
The Wall Street Journal invented the anecdotal form of news writing some two decades ago and has since turned it into an art form. You can find an example on the front page nearly every day. And it works best when you're trying to tell a complicated story.
Consider this WSJ lead:
Last year, director Steven Soderbergh took home an Academy Award for his unblinking portrayal of drug use in his movie "Traffic." But viewers of a version of "Traffic" from software company ClearPlay Inc. didn't see all of it. Gone are scenes of the teenage heroine prostituting herself and learning how to freebase cocaine with her prep-school boyfriend.
"Do I have to see the drug dealer on top of her to get that message across?" asks 27-year-old Ryan Fawson, who adapts movies at ClearPlay's offices here for customers who prefer a cleaned-up version.
Mr. Fawson is part of a growing cottage industry busily snipping out scenes from Hollywood movies and selling or renting the alternative cut, either on videocassettes and DVDs or through such web-based software as ClearPlay's.
Having set the stage with an anecdote, the WSJ piece now moves on to the issues at stake: Does ClearPlay Inc. have the right to edit films? Do directors and producers have a legitimate gripe in opposing such practices? What copyright issues will arise?
Corporate editors can use the anecdotal approach for stories explaining benefits, growth strategies, marketing gains (or losses), employee profiles—virtually anything. What do you gain by using a story format?
Anecdotal leads are impossible to ignore. They are similar to a friend bursting through your door and saying, "you won't believe what just happened to me. I was walking down the street and…."
By choosing a real person and a real story to demonstrate a complicated benefits package or strategy, you inevitably simplify the piece.
The story is no longer dry and impersonal.
Turn mind-numbing processes into compelling copy
The trick, then, is to take that complicated business story and turn it into a story that contains flesh-and-blood.
Unfortunately, most of what we see in corporate publications would send the worst insomniac into healthy R.E.M. sleep.
Consider this passage from a randomly chosen employee publication (the name has been changed to protect the guilty):
Acme Chemical's recent restructuring is sharpening the company's capability to deliver local service. The restructure process, announced in March, concluded on May 15. The new organization became effective June 1.
And that's the lead—the part that should be the most exciting. If we apply the anecdotal approach to the above example, it might have read something like this:
When John Burns called Acme Chemical last month to order supplies for his manufacturing company, he found a customer service department radically altered to save him time and money. Burns, who was accustomed to waiting three weeks for delivery, saw that time reduced by half. "I can't tell you how delighted and surprised I was," recalls Burns, an Acme customer of 10 years.
The anecdotal approach, by framing the restructuring in personal terms, becomes instantly accessible and—more important—readable.
Get to the nut
There is one major obstacle to the anecdotal approach: the tendency to drag out the lead. Because the piece begins with a story, many writers tend to spend five, six and even seven paragraphs telling the opening tale before getting to the point of the article.
In our seminars, we urge writers to limit the anecdotal lead to two or three paragraphs. Those paragraphs must be followed by the "nut graph"—a tightly written explanation of what the story is about.
Think of it this way: If you're telling a joke, the set up is the anecdote. But if the set up takes too long, you'll lose the timing and the rhythm that make a good joke work. Your audience will start to lose interest or forget where you were taking them. And then you'll blow the punch line. The punch line is the nut graph.
In the above Acme Chemical example, the story of customer John Burns would be followed by this "nut paragraph":
Burns is not alone in his praise for Acme's new customer service department. Across the country, customers are expressing newfound satisfaction at the streamlined ordering process that followed restructuring. But some issues still remain: How can we sustain the initial success and deliver consistently high service?
In sum, the nut paragraph builds upon the example described in the lead and provides the structure of what is yet to come. It closes the deal.
Readers can be lazy. A good nut graph or two shows them where the story is going, what points will be raised and what conclusions are likely to be drawn. By the way, this is also an excellent place for what we like to call the "big picture" quote in the story. That's the quote that lends a strong voice to your nut graph, a kind of punch line to the punch line.
Tip: Try writing the nut graph first. If you can capture the essence of a story in a paragraph or two, then you'll have an easier time figuring out what kind of anecdote would work best to get you there.
The rest of the story
Even the most complex stories "write themselves" once you have found and crafted a good opening story. In a longer piece, use other, similar anecdotes to highlight secondary themes or to open new sections of the story.
And consider coming back to your opening anecdote elsewhere in the piece. Remember, you can't use all that good stuff at the top or you'll start to lose your audience. Many writers like to come back to their person throughout the story, or end the piece by circling all the way back to the top, the so-called "doughnut" approach.
Readers, we'd love to see examples of good anecdotal writing and strong nut graphs, or help you take a story and figure out how to reconstruct it. Send us your examples and we'll print them here.
One last tip: Don't begin with, "It was a dark and stormy night." It's been done.
|Crafting the story, the anecdotal way
Follow these steps to write a good opening story1.
First, write three of four sentences establishing the point of your story. Example: This 1,000 word piece will explain how the company's new marketing plan resulted in a 10 percent increase in sales. 2.
Find an employee in the company who represents the trend. Example: A sales person who applied the new marketing plan and watched sales soar.3
. Conduct an interview that leaves you with a tightly constructed anecdote, followed by a dramatic or colorful quote.4.
After telling the story in your lead, using no more than two to three paragraphs, write a nut graph that explains the point of your piece. Feel free to pose two or three questions in that paragraph that sets up the rest of the article.