“In the first act you get your hero up a tree. The second act, you throw rocks at him. For the third act you let him down.”
George Abbott, American theater producer and director
See story elements at work in this healthcare narrative
How do you organize a dramatic narrative?
Model this piece written for Saint Luke’s Health by Wylie Communications’ head writer and senior writing coach, Loring Leifer. It has all of the elements you need to craft a compelling case study.
Start with a feature head. A good narrative deserves a creative headline. Alliteration works beautifully for this one.
A cascade of mysterious, mind-altering conditions led Daniel Stoner to the brink of death
Show instead of tell with a feature lead. Feature leads are concrete, creative and provocative.
Find a poster person. Characters drive your story — not organizations, products, services or programs.
Start with the snake. Lead with the problem. The inciting moment — aka the desk-pounding moment — gets the action started. So look for the moment of pain, change, crisis or decision that started your subject on his journey. Begin as close to the action as possible.
And make it a moment, not a condition. Notice that this doesn’t start with a month of Stoner feeling poorly, but with the moment he couldn’t ignore his problem any more.
Daniel Stoner couldn’t walk in a straight line, but not for the reasons those around him suspected.
Stoner was running errands last August when he lost track of where he was. He pulled his car to the side of the road and started phoning people from his past.
When a policeman asked him to get out of the car, he fell down trying. After Stoner failed a field sobriety test, the officer took him to an area hospital, where he wound up in a substance abuse ward.
End sections with external transitions, like the one in the second sentence in the following paragraph. External transitions propel the story forward, rather than summing up what’s already happened. Think of external transitions as cliffhangers designed to pull the reader through the piece at a natural stopping point: the end of a section.
A blood test soon determined that he was completely sober. It would take a team of doctors and some of the most sophisticated medical technology in the region to determine what was wrong … and, more important, what was not.
Body: Section one
Develop the problem in more detail in the first section of the body. Here, Loring introduces new obstacles to Stoner’s health.
The hospital sent Stoner home with a diagnosis of stress and a bad reaction to a prescription medication.
The following week, after a swim at the gym, Stoner was headed toward the whirlpool when he dropped to the floor in a seizure. An employee found him staring and non-responsive.
The Emergency Department at the same area hospital now suspected he had suffered a stroke. The doctors started him on a stroke medicine and transferred him to the Saint Luke’s Brain and Stroke Institute.
Forget name, title and company in the first paragraph. The fact that Stoner’s a personal trainer doesn’t matter in the lead. But here, where he can’t move his arm or feel his feet, it provides a startling contrast that shows how far he’s sunk.
Stoner’s next memory is waking up 36 hours later at Saint Luke’s Hospital Intensive Care Unit. A personal trainer and wellness instructor usually full of energy, he was lethargic and nauseated. He couldn’t move his left arm, felt weak on his left side, and couldn’t feel his feet. He also had trouble understanding what people were saying.
It’s the problem, silly. One of my respected colleagues in the healthcare communication business tells his writers to “get the patient to the hospital.” In fact, it’s the problem, not the solution, that moves readers in case studies like this one — no matter what the industry. Plus, the more fully you develop the problem, the more brilliant you show the doctors who finally solve it to be.
Expertise in strokes enabled Saint Luke’s doctors to quickly rule out one in Stoner’s case. Doctors ran a cerebral angiogram, which mapped the blood vessels in his brain with dye. It came back normal. So did a CT perfusion scan. One of only a few in the region, this scan measures blood flow and can pinpoint strokes.
“He was profoundly altered, but his exam wasn’t consistent with stroke,” said Suzanne Crandall, D.O., a neurologist on staff at Saint Luke’s Hospital.
Find the antagonist. Notice how Loring treats Stoner’s health issue as the villain in this piece. Villains don’t have to be people: They can be diseases, hurricanes, political movements — anything that keeps the hero from achieving his goal.
With one culprit eliminated, she launched a full-scale investigation. Blood tests eliminated West Nile, several other viruses, and fungal infections.
“Anything that bothers the brain on one side can manifest on one side of the body and cause stroke-like symptoms,” Dr. Crandall said.
She ordered an MRI to eliminate a tumor and found lesions of inflamed brain tissue. A spinal tap confirmed abnormalities in his spinal fluid consistent with viral encephalitis, a severe inflammation of the brain.
Body: Section two
Develop the solution in the second section of the body.
Brain boot camp
Stoner’s infectious disease specialist, Paul Jost, M.D., sent him to Saint Luke’s Neurorehabilitation Services. There, he began a program of physical, cognitive, speech, and occupational therapy to regain functions damaged by the inflammation.
Pile on the problems. A series of conflicts and resolutions makes up the body of a good dramatic narrative.
Even after his acute symptoms subsided, Stoner slurred his words. His left hand curled, and he had trouble commanding his left side to move. The lesions were in a part of the brain that affected his emotions, too.
“I stopped feeling emotionally connected to friends that I knew I had been close to before,” Stoner said.
He had always been physically active and had been able to distract himself from trauma by working out, going out in the garden, or reading.
Write sound bites, not quotes. Blah-blah-blah corporate quotes sound even more ridiculous in dramatic narratives.
“There weren’t a lot of things I could do to escape mentally or physically from my situation,” Stoner said. “As they say in the South, I had to set in my stuff.”
He was amazed at how Brad Steinle, M.D., a physiatrist, and the team of therapists worked together to help him regain what he had lost.
“Everyone understood that I wasn’t at this moment the person I was or considered myself to be,” Stoner said. “They held that place open for me.”
His therapists would introduce him by saying, “This is Daniel, he’s a personal trainer,” always referring to his work in the present tense.
String the beads on the necklace. Look for moments of success, as well. Specific moments in time are the pearls in the necklace of a dramatic narrative.
Stoner marveled that Dr. Steinle stayed current on his breakthroughs. When Stoner finally straightened his hand during therapy; Dr. Steinle knew about it before his next visit.
All subjects should be as expressive as Stoner. If yours is, feel free to pile on the lyrical sound bites like these. Most of the time, however, it’s better to paraphrase.
“All of my doctors and therapists worked in concert, and I never had to spend time updating them,” Stoner said. “They would shine the light on the path ahead of me instead of needing me to tell them where I had been.”
Here’s another nice external transition.
But, one more consequence of his condition would set back his progress.
Body: Section three
In this section, Loring introduces and resolves another obstacle — the final plot point in the hero’s journey toward recovery.
Here’s another solid moment in time.
In the months following his stay at Saint Luke’s, Stoner was plagued with headaches again. He dismissed them as residual effects of the encephalitis. Then, he felt a lump on his scalp. His temperature spiked to 104 degrees.
That brought him back to Dr. Jost, who quickly determined that Stoner had a massive scalp abscess. It covered almost one third of his head. Had Stoner delayed seeking treatment for another 24 hours, Dr. Jost told him, he might not have survived. Toxins from the abscess were entering his blood stream.
A hairline crack in his sinus cavity, which occurred when he hit his head during the initial seizure, may have allowed bacteria to escape, causing the abscess.
Stoner underwent a three-hour surgery to drain it. He also underwent six weeks of intravenous antibiotics.
Here, Loring wraps the story up — with more specific moments, successes and sound bites.
Once again, Stoner’s indomitable spirit rallied with help from a nurse’s aide taking him for a shower.
“My head was bandaged like ‘The English Patient’; I hadn’t shaved in 10 days; I had plastic bags over my head and arm; and the nurse told me, ‘You look like Mel Gibson,’” said Stoner.
“I said, ‘I’ll take the compliment.’ Everyone I encountered seemed to know not just how to make me get better, but how to make me feel better.”
Their efforts are paying off. Stoner is working again; the lesions are fading; his left hand responds to commands; and he’s feeling emotions again.
Tops among them: his tremendous gratitude to Saint Luke’s for negotiating a course through his complex conditions.
How can you craft an extended narrative like Loring’s?
Get the word out with clear, compelling copy
Each day, your readers are bombarded with 5,000 attempts to get their attention. That’s nearly 2 million messages a year. Is your copy getting through to your tired, busy, distracted audience?
These days — when people are more inclined to discard information than to read it — you need copy that captures attention, cuts through the clutter and leaves a lasting impression.
Wylie Communications can help. With Wylie Communications on your team, you can:
- Deliver copy that sells. When Ann’s not writing or editing, she’s training other writers. Or helping companies get the word out to their audiences. She applies the best practices she develops for her training and consulting business to her writing and editing projects. So your project will cut through the clutter, lift your ideas off the page or screen and deliver copy that sells products, services and ideas.
- Bring award-winning talent to your project. Ann’s work has earned nearly 60 communication awards, including two IABC Gold Quills. Let us help you produce world-class business communications, as well.
- Get writers who get business. Ann has interviewed George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. But she really enjoys chatting with economists, engineers and surgeons. At Wylie Communications, we’ve written about communication technology for Sprint, about personal finance for Northern Trust and — despite the fact that Ann’s preferred form of exercise is the hike from recliner to refrigerator — about fitness medicine for the Mayo Clinic. We’ll get up to speed on your industry, quickly and thoroughly.
- Stop working weekends. Our team provides a virtual staff to write and edit newsletters and magazines for Saint Luke’s, Northern Trust, State Street/Kansas City and Sprint. Let us pick up the slack in your department, too.
Want to reach more readers? To discuss your next writing project, contact me. We’ll deliver copy that gets read and remembered.
“Not long ago, at a dinner party, a Broadway lyricist whose international hit had earned him a chunk of Fort Knox confided to me the secret of his commercial success: ‘Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait,’ he said.”
Theater critic John Lahr, in The New Yorker
All’s well that ends
The punch line of a story is like the punch line of a joke — the place where you surprise your audience and make your point.
Hallmark’s late, great Gordon MacKenzie used this technique in his parable about the baby and the artist’s canvas in Orbiting the Giant Hairball, his delightful tome on corporate creativity. He writes:
“Before you were born, God came to you and said, ‘Hi. I just thought I’d drop by to wish you luck. You’re going to be having some very interesting experiences coming up pretty soon. I was wondering, would you take this artist’s canvas with you and, while you’re living your life, paint a masterpiece for me?’
“‘Sure,’ you chirp. And you take the pristine canvas, roll it up, tuck it under your arm, and head off on your adventure.
“When you are born, some doctor or nurse looks down at you in amazement and gasps, ‘Look! The little kid’s carrying a rolled-up artist’s canvas!’
“Believing that you don’t yet have the skills to do anything meaningful with your canvas, the adults gently take it away from you and give it to society for safekeeping. But society can’t resist unrolling the canvas and drawing pale blue lines and pale blue numbers on its virgin surface. Eventually society gives the canvas back to you – its rightful owner – but with the implied message that if you will paint inside the pale blue lines and follow the instructions of the pale blue numbers, your life will be a masterpiece.
“And that’s a lie.”
Punch out your punch line.
To make the most of this powerful element, really punch out your punch line:
1. Tighten your setup.
Two straight lines followed by the punch line is the rule of thumb on the comedy circuit. Here, four fascinating paragraphs with longish sentences lull us into an expected rhythm, which MacKenzie breaks with the punch line.
2. Create a pause before the punch line.
Why slow the story down before you reach the end?
For the same reason stand-up comics pause and pan before delivering the punch line. The comedians are building tension in their audience members — tension that can be broken only by laughing. In comedy clubs, the greater the tension, the bigger the laugh. In storytelling, the greater the tension, the bigger the emotional payoff.
Whereas comedians can pause and pan, writers can create a slight pause before the punch line with the three P’s:
Notice how MacKenzie punches out his punch line through paragraphing. He builds the tension by making the last line a separate paragraph.
3. Put the punch line at the end.
Put the most powerful phrase at the end of the sentence, the end of the paragraph, the end of the anecdote.
We all have friends who tell jokes by starting with the punch line. Then they say, “Oh, I forgot to tell you, it was two ducks and the Pope in a bar.” And you’re thinking, “You know, nothing you say now is going to make this funny.”
The same is true of an anecdote. If you don’t withhold the important point until the end, the anecdote loses its power.
For those of us raised on the inverted pyramid, it takes a lot of discipline to withhold the revealing point until the end. But that’s the challenge of mastering new skills. Occasionally we have to temporarily put aside some of the techniques that brought us here in the first place.
Meanwhile, back at the masterpiece …
Fair disclosure: I was friends with MacKenzie and had the honor of editing his wonderful book. (An easier and more pleasant project there has never been.)
As a fan of MacKenzie — and as a fan of you! — I’ll share the end of his “masterpiece” story. Check out how he handles the punch line here:
“Every single one of us has a masterpiece inside us. Some of us are working on our masterpieces, some of us aren’t. Each of us has options: We can choose to do nothing on the canvas, we can paint by numbers, or we can create.
“But if you go to your grave without painting your masterpiece, it will not get painted.
“No one else can paint it.
See another example of punching out your punch line.
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 my Master the Art of the Storyteller 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.
“Explanations require lots of attention, but attention is scarce. So don’t explain. Instead, anchor in what people already know.”
Chip Heath and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick
Black Hills Power transforms press release with analogy
Hillary Dobbs, a PR pro at Black Hills Power in Rapid City, S.D., recently received this release to distribute to media contacts:
Black Hills Power Hosted New Reliability Center in Rapid City
June 20, 2013 – Rapid City, S.D.: Black Hills Power hosted the new reliability center located on Deadwood Avenue in Rapid City to area community leaders. The open house was an opportunity for Black Hills Power, Black Hills Energy and Cheyenne Light Fuel & Power to share how they have combined their operations to deliver safe, reliable, service to the 200,000 customers they serve.
“Black Hills Corporation reliability center features the state-of-the art technology for our customers while providing a safe and efficient way to operate and monitor our electric system from across several states,” said Dave Emery, CEO and President of Black Hills Corporation.
The project began in early 2011 with the goal of re-organizing the system operations in order to support the three electric utility companies, including power generation that also supports the utilities. The remodeling and expansion is located in the existing system control center in Rapid City.
Black Hills Corp.’s New Reliability Center: The Future Of Keeping The Lights On
June 20, 2013 — Rapid City, S.D.: Think of Black Hills Corp.’s new Reliability Center as NASA’s Mission Control. Like Mission Control, the Reliability Center is a central hub using the latest technology to complete some vital missions. Unlike NASA’s hub, the BHC Reliability Center isn’t focused on the safety of a singular space shuttle. Instead, the center’s 14 employees are safely and reliably keeping the power on for 200,000 electric customers.
“Our Reliability Center simplifies systems maintenance and manages thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines, all in one place,” said David R. Emery, Black Hills Corp.’s chairman, president and CEO. “Our center’s employees are extensively trained on system reliability and security. For our customers, that means we’ll continue to be a leader in service reliability.”
The company hosted an open house for the new facility on Deadwood Avenue on Thursday. The project started in 2011 with the goal of re-organizing the system operations in order to consolidate and support the three electric utility companies that Black Hills Corp. owns. Those utilities include Black Hills Power, Black Hills Energy in Colorado and Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power in Wyoming.
“We’re a stodgy utility company,” Dobbs writes, “so the fact that a feature lede made it through the horrific approval process is something of a loaves-and-fishes miracle for us.”
Make Your Copy More Creative
Want to communicate better with creative copy?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to handle a creative writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Make Your Copy More Creative workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to Make Your Copy More Creative in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next Art of the Storyteller webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s learning tools on storytelling, metaphor and human interest.
- Join the club: Find dozens of tipsheets on creative copywriting at RevUpReadership.com.
“Writers are in the music business.”
Donald M. Murray, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist
Anaphora turns search phrases into verse
I’m a huge fan of found poetry.
Create poetry from the speeches of Donald Rumsfeld, the baseball play calls of Phil Rizzuto or the etiquette advice of Emily Post, and I’m a happy camper.
Now the brilliant folks at Google Poetics are creating found poetry of Google search terms. When you search on Google, its algorithms provide a list of most-frequently-searched-for phrases. The best create poetry like:
she fell in love with the drummer
she fell in love with someone else
she fell among thieves
One reason Google search terms work so effectively is anaphora, or repeated phrases at the beginning of each line.
Read more found poetry.
September writing contest: Create a piece of found poetry
and send it to me by Sept. 15. If yours is the best entry,
I’ll send you my favorite found-poetry-themed gift.
Make Your Copy More Creative
It’s not fluff. Creative material communicates more clearly, builds reader loyalty, creates a “buzz” for your topic — even enhances credibility.
In my Make Your Copy More Creative workshop, you’ll learn how to bring your messages to life with storytelling, wordplay and metaphor. Specifically, you’ll learn:
- Where to find online tools that virtually twist phrases for you
- The question that will help your subject matter experts recall a story
- A simple structure to use for crafting an effective anecdote
- How to get a fresh spin on clichés
- A four-step process for coming up with a creative metaphor
- A fill-in-the-blanks template you can use to write your next metaphor
“The camera can photograph thought. It’s better than a paragraph of sweet polemic.”
Dirk Bogarde, English actor and novelist
What tools can you use to communicate visually?
Beth Stultz, marketing manager for Pet Sitters International, won our July communication contest with this comic strip she created on StripGenerator.com.
Find more tools for creating your own comics.
How can you use a simple comic to communicate your message?
“Awesome, wonderful and informative. This course should be a requirement for any marketer.”
Jannay Morrison, product communications manager, Toshiba America Medical Systems
Last chance to book a date with Ann in 2013
Have you been thinking about bringing me in for a writing workshop this year?
If so, let’s act fast.
My schedule gets fully booked earlier and earlier each year. At this point, I have open dates for only three more onsite workshops in 2013.
If you’ve been planning to bring me in this year, please contact me today. By the end of the month, I will most likely be completely dated up for the rest of the year.
Too bad this never happened to me in high school!
“To say you were a big hit yesterday is putting it mildly. Even better, one of my team members showed me an announcement email she developed that is short, graphically pleasing and looks effortless to read. So your wise counsel is already paying off!”
Ron Kirkpatrick, director of Creative Communications, Toyota USA
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:
- New York City on Dec. 2. Catch Your Readers, a full-day workshop for PRSA
- Philadelphia on Oct 27. Writing for Social Media, a half-day pre-conference session for the PRSA World Conference
- Philadelphia on Oct 28. Cut Through the Clutter, 75-minute breakout session for the PRSA World Conference
- Tulsa, Okla., on Nov. 20. Catch Your Readers, a one-day workshop for IABC/Tulsa
- Your own home or office on Sept. 5. Anatomy of a News Release 2.0, 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
- Minneapolis: Oct. 9
- New York City: Dec. 2
- Philadelphia: Oct. 27-28
- Tulsa, Okla.: Nov. 20
Save even more: Ask about my communication-association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
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