“When you advertise fire extinguishers, open with the fire.”
David Ogilvy, “the father of advertising”
Find the ‘inciting incident’
First things first.
Start your story with the inciting incident — the conflict that begins the action of the story and causes the hero to act.
Think of the inciting incident as the discovery of the corpse that begins every episode of “Law & Order.” Elizabeth George’s For the Sake of Elena, for instance, starts like this:
“Mercifully, the arm was attached to a body.”
Without this event, there would be no story.
Three tricks for starting with the inciting incident:
1. Find the ‘desk-pounding moment.’
When you’re interviewing for a narrative, look for the “desk-pounding moment.”
That, according to Ragan Communications editor David Murray, “is the moment when somebody pounded on his or her desk and said, ‘Damn it, we’ve got to do something about this.’
“That moment is the origin of every corporate program. … The closer you as a reporter get to the very moment the idea was hatched by a human being, the better your story is going to be.”
2. Begin as close to the action as possible.
“Come in late and get out early.”
— David Mamet, Tony-nominated playwright of Glengarry Glen Ross
A participant in one of my storytelling workshops once shared this advice:
“If you’re writing about seeing a snake at a picnic, for gosh sake, start with the snake. Don’t start with fixing the sandwiches.”
The conflict — the snake — is the inciting moment.
So start in the middle of things, at the most dramatic moment of the conflict:
- The day the tax bill came
- The day the bank called your loan
- The day the company shipped its $60,000 circuit board with a fatal flaw
3. Skip the background information.
And of course, don’t include 40 paragraphs of background information before something actually happens. Do that, and readers won’t stick around long enough to get to the inciting incident.
Master the Art of the Storyteller
Storytelling is “the most powerful form of human communication,” according to Peg Neuhauser, author of Corporate Legends and Lore.
Indeed, stories can help you:
- Get and keep attention
- Enhance credibility
- Make your message more memorable
- Communicate better
- Create a “buzz” for your ideas
In this workshop, you’ll learn to identify, develop and tell stories that will illustrate your points, communicate your messages and sell your products, services and ideas. Specifically, you’ll learn:
- How to reframe the five journalistic W’s — who, what, when, where and why — to tell a story instead of just cranking out another boring inverted pyramid
- The key question to ask during an interview to elicit juicy anecdotes
- A seven-second rule to apply to determine whether your material is really an anecdote
- How “WBHA” can help you find anecdotes in the making
- The secret to organizing your material into a powerful story
- The best place to start an anecdote — and the worst place
- A quick, easy-to-use template for building an anecdote
Ready to bring me in for an Art of the Storyteller workshop? Contact me today.
Sources: Ann Wylie, The Art of the Storyteller, Wylie Communications Inc., 2003
David Murray, “Writing Between the Lines: How to tell good news well: Separate the meat from the fluff,” Corporate Writer & Editor, July 1, 2003
“Comics are the rock ’n’ roll of literature.”
David Mack, American comic book artist and writer
7 tools for doing it yourself
If you have more time than money — and if professional quality is not an issue — you might consider creating your own comic.
A gazillion online tools make it possible to put simple comics together.
Among my favorites:
I could waste the rest of my life doodling around on Halftone, a 99-cent iPad app that turns photos into comic panels.
Here’s a Halftone panel I created for a piece on the “Trash compactor” story, where you squeeze the life out of a piece by cutting words.
2. Comic Life 2
This $29.99 application lets you make comic strips using your own photos and images.
Here’s a strip I developed for a story called “Turn Strunk & White upside down,” about the practice of highlighting needed words instead of omitting needless words.
You can create a simple strip using this site’s characters and props. Here’s a strip by Quag54.
I downloaded this app to keep the most adorable girl in the world — aka my 5-year-old niece — entertained at restaurants.
But “the world’s most popular avatar” maker also lets you create comic-like characters on your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch.
Here’s WeeWorld’s own “Tech Master.”
Create your own comic videos with your story and Xtranormal’s sets, actors and sounds. Here’s one I’m working on about writer’s block.
A basic account is free; professional accounts are $50 a month.
Make a short comic video on your iPhone with Tellagami (rhymes with origami).
Use the app’s characters and your own photo and voice for pieces like this 18-second video explaining how to make a sidecar.
7. Microsoft Word
Heck, I’m not above using photos and captions I develop in MS Word as comic panels.
Here’s one for a story showing how captions change the meaning of images.
Just do it.
There are dozens of other tools for generating comics, avatars, word balloons, and comic fonts and lettering. Your best friend and research assistant Google can help you find the best resources for you.
July communication contest: Create your own comic
Use one of these tools — or your own favorite — to create a simple comic panel, strip or video that illustrates your favorite communication tip.
Send your entry to me by July 15.
I’ll publish the best and send the winner my favorite graphic novel.
“Twitter is good. Why say a lot to a few people when you can say virtually nothing to everyone?”
Jerry Seinfeld, stand-up comedian, actor, writer and producer
118 characters is the new black
Give Twitter followers some space. Space to include a comment when they retweet your message, that is.
Yes, you have 140 characters to work with on Twitter. And that’s not much. But leave 20 characters for your followers’ notes, and you’ll encourage retweeting.
That’s right: 120 characters is the new 140.
Or is it?
118 characters is the new black.
If you’re tweeting a link, your tweets just got shorter. Now any tweet you send with a URL will be reduced to 118 characters — 117 for https links.
The reason: A behind-the-scenes change in Twitter’s link wrapper means that links now take more space.
And that leaves you with less.
Reach readers online.
Want to get the word out on the Web?
- Get it off your desk: Bring Ann’s team in to write Web copy for your organization.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Web writing workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to polish your Web writing skills with one-on-one writing coaching sessions. And find out about Ann’s upcoming webinars on writing for the Web and social media.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Web writing learning tools. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: And find dozens of tipsheets on reaching readers online at RevUpReadership.com.
“Facts tell, stories sell.”
StoryCorps animates Americans’ oral histories
StoryCorps, public radio’s oral history project, has collected and archived more than 45,000 stories of nearly 90,000 participants.
Now you can see some of them in action through its animated shorts.
Also check out StoryCorp’s Great Questions, a useful tool when interviewing someone about her story.
How can you gather, tell and illustrate your organization’s stories?
Build a solid structure
Want to master a story structure that increases readership instead of cutting it short?
- Get it off your desk: Bring Ann’s team in to write compelling copy.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a “Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid” workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann on developing the feature-style story structure in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next “Beyond the Inverted Pyramid” teleseminar.
- Join the club: Get dozens of tipsheets on the feature-style story structure at RevUpReadership.com.
Make the most of your messages with Ann’s before-and-after service
Want to see your Web copy in a whole new light? Get a professional makeover from Wylie Communications.
For years, our clients have been asking us to show them what we would have done with their intranet articles, Web pages, e-zines, magazines articles and blog posts. Recently, one of them was especially persuasive. (Thank you, Cheryl Deak-Furlong!)
- We rewrote headlines, decks, leads, links and leads.
- We showed how to polish paragraphs, shorten sentences, streamline syllable counts and activate the passive voice.
- We demonstrated how to make copy more accessible with the palm test and how to lift ideas off the screen with the skim test.
Our clients found these makeovers to be most helpful in finding new ways to polish their own Web prose. And we really enjoyed the process. Now we’re hooked — and ready to make over more Web copy.
Would you like a Web copy makeover by Wylie Communications? If so, contact Ann.
“Excellent! [Ann’s] session was engaging and informative. I have a lot of changes to implement, but I’m excited about it.”
Velma J. Smith, Communications Consultant, Kaiser Permanente
Polish your skills at one of these events
Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations.
But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:
- Louisville, Ky., on Oct. 23. Catch Your Readers, a one-day workshop for the Kentucky Association of Government Communicators
- New York City on Dec. 2. Catch Your Readers, a full-day workshop for PRSA
- Philadelphia on Oct 26. Write for Social Media, a half-day pre-conference session for the PRSA World Conference
- Tacoma, Wash., on Aug. 14. Catch Your Readers, a half-day workshop for PRSA Puget Sound
- Tulsa, Okla., on Nov. 20. Catch Your Readers, a one-day workshop for IABC/Tulsa
- Your own home or office, Sept. 5. Anatomy of a News Release, a one-hour webinar for PRSA
Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.
Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.
Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program
Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.
Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:
- Austin, Texas: Nov. 7
- Irvine, Calif.: July 24
- Louisville, Ky.: Oct. 16
- Torrance, Calif.: July 30
- Minneapolis: Oct. 9
- New York City: Dec. 2
- Philadelphia: Oct. 26-27
- Raleigh-Durham, NC: July 10
- Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 14
- Tulsa, Okla.: Nov. 20
- Tustin, Calif.: July 25
Save even more: Ask about my communication-association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Presenting writing workshops for ExxonMobil, Kaiser Permanente, the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) World Conference and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
- Helping ExxonMobil refresh its intranet
- Providing one-on-one writing coaching for VSP
Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.
Keep in touch via:
- ComPRehension, PRSA’s blog of public relations strategies and tactics
- Wylie Communications feed, click RSS
- Wylie’s Writing Tips