Storytelling 101

Following these ten tips for better storytelling can help you decide how to write your story.

1. Make the story about a person
Stories about individuals are more relatable and memorable than stories about programs, organizations, or abstract concepts and ideas. For example, if you are telling a story about a program, consider telling it from the perspective of someone who has benefited from the program or someone who was instrumental in implementing the program.

2. Write a “lead” sentence
In journalism, lead sentences are used to make sure the most important message from a story is the first thing you read. This accomplishes several objectives. A good lead sentence can compel your audience to continue reading, set up the story, and ensure that the most important message is not lost because it’s buried too deeply in the story. Writing a good lead sentence is not easy. Journalists often spend more time writing that one sentence than the entire rest of the story, but it can make a big difference in how many people decide to take the time to read your story.

3. Consider the emotional aspects of the story
Research has shown that emotional responses are more likely to spur people to act on a problem than analytical responses. While statistics and data can provide valuable support for a story, the analytical thinking required to understand this type of information can often inhibit our emotional response. Use statistics sparingly and frame them in human terms. For example, use “three out of four people” instead of “75% of people.”

4. Consider the take-away from the story
What is the point of your story? Is it a lesson learned? A cautionary tale? A case of perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds? Is it meant to inspire others to act? Or to provide an innovative example of what can be done? Make sure your reader understands what you want them to take away from the story by summarizing your main point at the end.

5. Provide some context
It is hard for people to relate to a story about subjects that are completely unknown them. Provide enough context to make sure your reader understands what’s at stake or how their life could be affected by the events in the story. Don’t overwhelm with background information, however. Provide just enough so that the reader doesn’t feel lost trying to understand your story.

6. Use visual language to describe details
Stories that stay with you tend to paint a picture in your mind. This is because these visual details help readers create a mental simulation of the events in the story. This ability to create a mental simulation helps us learn, solve problems, and anticipate response to future events. Including visual details that help “set the stage” for your story can help ensure that others will remember the story when they need it most.

7. Use plain language and avoid jargon
Including jargon that is specific to your field limits your audience. If your story is full of jargon, it may still be a great story for peer-to-peer learning, but what about the politician that may be voting on legislation that could affect your work? Make sure your story can be understood by everyone who needs to hear it by following the federal government’s plain language guidelines.

8. Consider common elements of compelling storytelling
Great stories often share one or two characteristics that help to engage the reader and create a heightened sense of urgency. For example, many stories have something important at stake that must be accomplished by a deadline. Other stories cultivate a sense of mystery and surprise. Other stories may be about a conflict between “heroes” and “villains.” Others may be about a protagonist who has to overcome challenges or obstacles. Using one of these familiar themes can help make stories more memorable.

9. Read the story out loud to someone unfamiliar with it
Anytime you write something, it can be helpful to read it out loud. Hearing what we’ve written can help us identify obvious mistakes and areas for improvement. Asking someone to listen as you read your story out loud can also identify areas that may be unclear to someone outside your area of expertise. Ask them to point out areas that need more clarification and what made the story interesting to them.

10. Cut out the clutter
While it’s important to provide enough details to lend credibility to your story and enough context so that readers understand your story, it is easy include too much information. Once you’ve finished writing your story, read through it to make sure the details you’ve included are relevant to the story. If you are unsure, try taking out the information in question and see if your story makes sense without it.

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