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As content executive at theblueballroom, Sophie Grant loves to engage people with words, from campaign stories to catchy poster copy. Here she shares her insights on effective storytelling.

‘If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule – a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.’ John Steinbeck

Once upon a time, the first story ever was told. I often wonder what that story was. Traditionally, a story is a narrative, either true or made-up, that is written to entertain or engage the hearer or reader. We all spend so much of our time struggling to communicate messages and it’s not surprising that one of the most effective methods is story-telling. It seems to me that so much emphasis is put on writing in business language that we’ve forgotten the value of powerful words.

Did you know that 50% of readers read only 50% of an article?

With so many modern distractions and a rich mix of channels available to us, I think that it’s more important than ever to use the right words to grab, and maintain, your audience’s attention. But don’t fear! I am here (not only to rhyme) but to give you some tips on how to communicate in an engaging and compelling way.

Know your audience: Just as I would adapt a story that I have heard from a friend so that it’s suitable for my grandmother, you must do the same in business. Write for your readers and not for yourself or your boss; it’s dangerous to assume that they understand what you’re talking about just because you do. If you do not know your audience and do not put yourself in their shoes, you cannot write a good story. So the most important question is: Who am I communicating with and how do they feel?

The moral of the story: I will never forget The Boy Who Cried Wolf – a story that my mother repeatedly referred to as I grew up. To me the story has purpose. It has a message and ends with a moral: if you keep fibbing, eventually no-one will believe you when you are telling the truth (message), so don’t fib (moral).

Answer these questions before you begin your story:

What am I trying to say?
How do I feel about this and do I believe in it myself?
What reaction am I expecting or seeking?

Never, ever lie: The best stories are those that are not all positive. Setting up a problem for a solution appeals to human emotions. People want to know the truth; they want to know when they read something that they now know it all, the good and the bad. Why? Because people are more scared of what they don’t know than what they do. And when they feel they know enough, they can move on to understanding and involving themselves in it.

Remember simple writing tips: Always try to use an active voice instead of a passive one (it’s not always suitable, see my first sentence). A passive voice can immediately deny all responsibility and sound very formal.
A business strategy is being written and will be presented next year.
Better: We are writing our business strategy that we’ll share with you next year.

According to statistics I should have lost half of you about now. Are you still with me? Good. Moving on…

Short and Sweet: Make sure you share your main message in the first couple of sentences, and then you can go on to set the scene and explain more. Keep your sentences short and make sure you’re not using unnecessarily long words.
A large number of stories do not get read as a consequence of having in excess of twenty words per sentence.
Better: Many stories do not get read because they have over twenty words per sentence.

When you have finished, read it back and delete any words that your story can do without. It will read so much more smoothly (afterwards) and help shorten (the length) it. See what I mean?

Horses for courses: Some people love a crime novel and others a trashy rom-com! There are a million ways to tell a story, but that’s the beauty of story-telling. Stories are made to motivate and inspire inside and outside of business. I’m not talking about injecting humour into your annual report, for example, but it doesn’t always have to be predictable.

When was the last time you told a story? Probably very recently. Next time you need to write an email about a change that’s happening or even an announcement on an intranet page, think this: when you talk about a company’s past, you are telling a story. And when you talk about the future, you don’t actually know what will happen, so you are most definitely telling a story. A story deserves to be told in a way that engages its audience, or it is, quite simply, wasted.



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