One of the things I do on a volunteer basis is read submissions for a magazine that publishes short stories. Writers send in their stories, and readers like me decide which ones are worth a closer look by the people who choose what to publish.
It’s a fun gig because it lets me keep my critique skills sharp. More importantly, reading so much has shown me how the rules of good fiction writing also apply to good business and content writing. A blog post or speech should be just like a story – it should take the audience along a certain path and leave them satisfied at the end, whether that satisfaction comes from a touching scene between two characters or from learning something they didn’t know before.
In other words, effective business writing can learn a few tricks from storytellers, like….
Having a protagonist
Let’s imagine that you’re part of a startup that creates revolutionary tools to help doctors diagnose cancer. You could write a case study talking about how much money the hospitals you work with have saved by using your products. Saving money is an easy sell.
But imagine instead if you wrote a case study about Dr. Ximenes. Dr. Ximenes is an oncologist who cares deeply for her patients, and keeps track of the latest developments in cancer research. Her dedication comes from having seen her uncle die of lung cancer when she was 12 – she wants to spare other families such pain by doing everything she can to save lives.
Dr. Ximenes is essentially our protagonist, and she has a goal – to save as many lives as she can.
However, there’s a problem. Tests to diagnose certain forms of cancer can be extremely expensive, and changes to the budget mean she can’t help as many people as she wants to. Her desire to help as many patients as possible is limited by the realities of her hospital’s or department’s budget.
So we’ve got a person (Dr. Ximenes) faced with a problem that appears insurmountable (limited money to help patients). The stakes are high; what can be done about this?
Well, you know what, don’t you? This is the part of the case study where you start talking about your company’s revolutionary new diagnostic tools. They could be revolutionary because they require only a very small sample size to work, or involve a cheaper, less invasive procedure to administer. The end result is that your tools reduce the cost of cancer diagnosis for Dr. Ximenes’ hospital by over 15%.
Ending with a message
But the lower cost doesn’t stop there. Because your company’s products result in such savings, Dr. Ximenes – and other doctors like her, who are part of your target audience – can treat more patients, and possibly at an earlier stage of their illnesses. With the help of your company, Dr. Ximenes may see her patients’ 5-year survival rates increase by as much as 20%. The fact that she now has better tools at her disposal to save the lives of so many people fills her with deep satisfaction.
Why storytelling is powerful
Humans are a social species. We tell stories to share information or provide a moral – think of how children today are still told Aesop’s fables. Facts and numbers provide proof; they’re the bones of the imaginary case study I just described to you. They provide the scaffolding. But a skeleton by itself is intimidating. The tools of storytelling – having a protagonist, introducing a conflict, and having that protagonist overcome said conflict – add flesh and skin to those bones, and turn the skeleton into a person we can empathize with.
You can focus on facts, figures, and percentages, as those are persuasive to many people. But they also leave many others feeling cold. If you can find a way to humanize what you want to say, you’ll reach as wide an audience as possible.
Image credit: by San José Library, via flickr.com.