Storytelling for Readers (who, incredulously enough, have minds of their own)

Storytelling Here

Storytelling this. Storytelling that. We need to tell our stories. Story story story.

Sorry but I’m in a bit of a downward spiral when it comes to storytelling in/by/for/with/around organizations. It’s so much “if only we could tell our story we would WIN!”

It’s not so simple but the fact remains that organizations and the people in and around them really must do a better job connecting with the audience that helps create change (or buys their product or makes a donation or whatever the goal of organization may be). Organizations communicate constantly with email, social media, online ads, billboards, direct mail, radio spots, videos and more.

Every single one of these pieces (EVERY ONE) tells a story. So how we craft stories and language matters a great deal. (It’s just that stories aren’t as good as corporations when it comes to lining the pockets of Congress so stories alone won’t change policy.)

The Premeditated Conclusion

Most stories that spring out of organizations – be they on video, blog posts, annual reports – are crafted in internal vacuums. Staff decide that they need people to think “X” or do “Y” so they sit down as a group and/or with consultants to create a story. The conclusion that the reader should reach is the goal. Everything in the story will obviously lead the reader there.

Not so many trees lose their lives during the editing process as in the old days but “view changes” in Microsoft Word gets a serious workout as the story comes together.

The result may actually be a good story. It may be short or long, breezy or deep. But even “good” storytelling in organizations tends to forget that readers bring their own (often much different) perspectives to the story and will be likely to draw inferences that you don’t anticipate or keep them from finding the story valuable to their own experience.

There are lots of reasons stories (even otherwise good ones) don’t work out as expected and this is one of them. How can we help the reader get where we want them to go?

Create a Path but Anticipate a Wandering Mind

Of course, you say, readers interpret things their own way. So what do we do about that?

There was a great article by Elizabeth McGuane and Randall Snare the other day on A List Apart that takes a deeper dive into the role of reader comprehension and inference. As the parent of a second and sixth grader I can tell you that reading comprehension is a subject quite alive in schools (though I’m withholding judgment on whether it is doing well).

But we often overlook the nature of comprehension in crafting our stories towards tangible goals like an advocacy action, donation, purchase, Facebook share.

So let’s go back to elementary school for a moment, shall we…it being, after all, where we were encouraged and taught to infer meaning.

People create meaning through their own life experiences. The role of a reader is to pick up clues from the story and, like notecards, sift those clues into piles they associate with what they already know. A good reader will quickly analyze the relationships between story themes and characters, tie them to their experience and extrapolate outward to add meaning to their own day, life, job, people around them and, hopefully, the issues about which you write.

A Bridge to the River of Comprehension

Randall and McGuane talk about this “bridging” – creating inferences that relate previous and new information – as the key spot in which readers may or may not come to the comprehension you seek as the writer.

When creating stories, compartmentalize the ideas and steps that you want your reader to take. Identify some of the perspectives in the audience and common life experiences shared by the reader. Make the story accessible and tangible to those different experiences. Don’t assume or require the reader to get all the way to the end before reaching the sort of conclusion you would like them to find.

Strive to make the story coherent to the reader’s experience, as McGuane and Randall point out. Establish coherence through location, characters, time and motivation. These chunks, in particular, will help guide the reader. We were, after all, taught the basics of reading comprehension quite early.

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