Guest contributed by Elise Valmorbida
The business world is full of people telling other people that they must tell stories.
They’re right in a way, because we like a bit of drama. We resist or resent dull information. Our attention is more and more a scarce asset. None of us has time or energy to spare. And a brand is nothing if not a story.
But the word ‘story’ gets tossed around like litter in the wind. The great story mavens—from Hollywood screen-writers to wilderness faith-healers—are quoted wantonly in business environments everywhere. Urged to tell stories, well-intentioned organisations too often grow narrative moss: pseudo-stories, shaggy old news pages, voiceless forums, scattered chatter across any kind of social media, unread newsletters, explicit claims of brand “passion” that seduce too few…
Whatever tale you need to tell—elevator pitch, brand history, personal profile, case study, script scenario, project proposal—you can use these tips from the world of literary storytelling to boost your brand success.
Why are you telling a story—this story? What’s at its heart? Think philosophically about the essence. Think, really think, until you unearth its unique truth. If you find a paradox or contradiction, chances are that’s the narrative crux. If embellishment is needed, it will emanate from the heart.
Fresh, not stale.
Samuel Beckett wrote his best plays first in French. He must have been fairly good at French, but it was a foreign language. So why did he do it? He wanted to stop the fluent from flowing. It was a defence against cliché. He compelled himself to think quite carefully about every word, rather than lapsing into lazy ideas or phrases. Try to “think fresh” when you make your verbal and visual choices.
Just for now, I’d like you to pretend your brand is a cat.
The cat sat on the mat, and then it sat somewhere else, and then it had a nap, and then…
Instead of “and then”, it’s better plotting to think “so”, “but” or “meanwhile”.
The cat sat on the mat, so the dog had to sit somewhere else.
The cat sat on the mat, but the mat reeked of dog.
The cat sat on the mat. Meanwhile, the dog lurked behind the door.
Welsh-noir author and creative writing teacher Malcolm Pryce writes: “Concrete nouns are judgement free. They don’t tell you what to think, they give you the information and allow you to form your own opinion. Rather than tell me the food was disgusting, which is an instruction to be disgusted, imagine you told me instead, the cook ran out of stock, so she took the bandage off her foot and put it in the stew. Presumably this image arouses disgust naturally within you. This is really what we mean by show not tell.”
Try the cook’s stew above.
Think of a representational still-life painting, where a fly appears to have landed on an apple because the apple looks so real; it’s almost a photograph. Now, think of a more abstract painting—say, a group of apples by Cézanne—and you’re invited to notice the brush-strokes, the gestures of the artist, the qualities of the paint and grain of the canvas. That’s how I think of poetic prose. Beyond the job of information, there’s pleasure to be had in the movements and textures of language itself.
Voiced utterances are like opening a window and letting in fresh air. “I love spoken words!” the reader says. Think quotation, endorsement, testimonial, user review…
Less is more.
“I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time”—so wrote the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal. When you edit, your story will probably get shorter. That’s good. Each remaining word (or image) will work harder for you. Bonus: your audience will feel respected because you haven’t wasted their time.
Other people’s shoes.
When I write fiction, I imagine the world from each character’s point of view. They have their own beliefs and reasons for doing things—they are not me. Imagine the situation of your reader as they read your story. Don’t tell them what you think they should feel.
Tell your story to one person.
A business doesn’t read your story, a person does.
Be clear about your story’s purpose. Are you inviting people to feel, or understand, or spend, or take some kind of action? Don’t overload the narrative with too many wishes—they’ll cancel each other out.
The end is the beginning…
When we finish reading the last words of a good story, we feel a pleasurable little grief. Perhaps we want to read the whole thing again. Perhaps we want to share it with others. Our world has shifted subtly on its axis. We think about things differently now.
About the author
Elise Valmorbida is a communications consultant, multi-published author and teacher of creative writing. Her latest novel The Madonna of the Mountains (Spiegel & Grau, USA) is a New York Post “must-read” and The Times (UK) Book of the Month. Bestselling author Sara Gruen describes it as “powerful and entrancing, a riveting adventure for the soul.”
Disclaimer: The opinions and views of guest contributors are not necessarily those of theglasshammer.com