If you don't have a story to tell, write oneThere is an old saying that goes, “If you have a story, tell it.  If you don’t, write it.”

Many non-fiction writers (I’m looking at you, engineers and scientists) ignore the power of storytelling when creating a presentation or writing a white paper.  Prompted by Mitch Joel‘s book review of “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years,” I wanted to write this post about adapting the principals of storytelling in non-fiction writing.

One trait common to most engineers is the compulsion to disassemble stuff and see how it works, and I am no exception.  When I reached a position in my career that I began to give frequent talks at industry events and workshops, I decided it was time to open up the hood of effective presentations and see what made them go.  Like an amateur auto mechanic in over his head, I was soon staring at a garage littered with parts and an engine compartment with a gaping hole.  As I started putting the pieces back together, it began to dawn on me that these same parts can be used to create engines for all content; blog posts, white papers, presentations, marketing brochures, web site pages, emails, etc…  And the crankshaft that turns them all is storytelling.

Are You Talkin’ to Me?

If you’re thinking that the subject matter of your blog post, white paper or presentation is to dull, boring, scientific, etc…, then yes – I am talking to you.  As an engineer, I was guilty of boring writing, and most engineering and scientific stuff I read is much the same.   It is attributable to left brain thinking, which processes information sequentially, one detail after another.   We feel the need to provide information in a linear, start to finish, beginning to end fashion where each fact or detail logically builds on its predecessor.  There are two problems with this approach. One, it’s boring!  Two, the reader may not last long enough to get to the good stuff because you haven’t given them a reason to be interested.  Your content must be remarkable.

So what is remarkable content?  It’s an email that with a subject line that is compelling and content that gets its point across succinctly, maybe even entertainingly.  It’s a presentation that not only keeps people awake, but inspires.   It’s a white paper that feels more like you’re reading a Stephen King novel than the phone book.  It’s a blog post that poses a simple question and ends up starting a movement.  Compelling content takes a good idea and makes it great, and it takes a great idea and puts a dent in the universe (as Steve Jobs would say).

Storytelling’s Secret Sauce

As humans, our brains learn from actions and consequences, and conflict is always in the middle. We have a need, a desire, a lust to find out what happens.   How does the story end?   All conflict begins with what Robert McKee calls the “Inciting Incident”, which is an event that “radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.”   The remainder of the story is a quest to restore that balance and that can only be accomplished through conflict.

Once the inciting incident is established, it’s time to move the story along by creating “acts.”  I’ve developed a template based on his techniques that I’ve actually turned into a worksheet that is proving to be very effective for crafting book chapters and blog posts.   I think if Mr. McKee ever saw it he would either think it was a clever adaptation of his teachings or else lose his lunch – I’m not sure which.

Structure of Story

In a nutshell, the template begins with an inciting incident, then contains a series of action/reaction complications centered around a controlling idea that inevitably reach a climax, at which point the closing value of the story (relative to the opening value) is revealed.  McKee wrote an entire book on this subject, so this one sentence hardly does it justice (I spend more than a full chapter on this subject in my upcoming book, “Social Media for Engineers & Scientists“).  However, keeping this structure in mind can go a very long way towards making your non-fiction writing more compelling and memorable.  Find the inciting incident for your subject, and then take the reader on a journey from a life disrupted to some sort of salvation.

If we compare this approach against the traditional, exposition-style of writing that permeates most non-fiction writing, it looks something like this:

Exposition Vs Storytelling

Remember that all stories are character driven. Your challenge is to identify the conflict in your story and personalize it for your reader by attaching it to an emotion. The frustration of knowing a control valve PID loop can perform better. The accomplishment of achieving a software certification. The friendships that are formed at your non-profit group’s meetings.

When you have a story, tell it.  When you don’t a story, write it.  It can be done!