A decade or so before I learned that one could make a living as a writer by means other than writing fiction or for newspapers and magazines, I took a short story writing course in my senior year of college. The professor was Milton White. Dr. White was a “figure” on campus, noted for his extravagant mode of expression, for his acerbic — some would say severe — critiques of the work presented in his class and, most of all, for the fact that he was an outstanding and highly-respected teacher. Milton had published three novels, and so he had what would later be called “cred,” although after one experienced his pedagogy first-hand, you knew he was the genuine article, independent of anything he’d written himself.
One of the hallmarks of his teaching was his reiteration of certain key points that were not guidelines or suggestions; they were laws. Most of his students remember several of these, which could be used to encourage (if you abode by that law) or to cajole (if you were falling short) or to castigate (if you ignored a law).
More than any other phrase, today, forty years later, I can hear his tenor, insistent voice declaiming the law that has stuck with me: “There has to be a STORY!”
It seems simple enough. It was a story-writing class. One couldn’t rely on remarkable language alone. You had to tell a STORY. But as elementary — and fundamental — as it seems, it’s an easy rule to forget.
Although most of what I’ve written in my career — and nearly everything we do here — is business communications, that doesn’t mean that we don’t apply Milton’s law. Over the past decade and half, the notion of “storytelling” has been a recurrent meme in the literature of professional communicators. When I think of projects in which I’ve struggled to help a client create an effective presentation or labored to construct a convincing point-of-view for an executive, I realize that I’d have benefited from bringing Milton’s law to mind: tell a story; set the scene, create a conflict and resolve it, resoundingly.
Story is conflict, complication and resolution. It’s a fruitful exercise to frame any business communication challenge in these terms, even if the final product doesn’t exactly sound like a story. It’s a particularly useful construct to use in getting clients to articulate the message they want to deliver: what is the problem or objective that needs to be addressed? What developments are taking place or what programs are being designed? What is the catharsis … the RESULT? Voila, a story emerges. Thinking in terms of a plot might even provide a means to migrate some hard-headed clients away from their insistence on a monotonous endless stream of bulleted PowerPoint screens; there may be a way to visualize the story, even without animation.
For those clients whose presentation skills are not world-class, thinking in story terms gives them a way to structure their pitch that improves their command of the material. For skilled presenters, what could be better than addressing an audience (whether live, in print or in video), with, “Listen, I want to tell you a story….”
Thank you, Milton.