What a good, memorable story requires.

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This last two weeks I’ve been reading a textbook called Storycraft, written by journalist Jack Hart and designed to help writers of non-fiction hone and enrich their skills: to turn true events into compelling stories. I was pleasantly surprised actually, because the book is damned good, but it reminded me how much I had learned in a previous life as a script writer and as a freelance journalist. For sure, there were new insights and tips that I will dial-up in future, but the most useful function of the book for me was to set out a formal checklist of things we ought to incorporate in a compelling story – especially one based on data. Here are a few must haves.

1) A clear tone of voice and standpoint. As teller of the story are you the problem solver who was given a challenge, or are you the skeptic who is trying to disprove something? Are you an insider or an independent outsider?  Be clear on this.

2) A clear story structure. Stories usually start calmly but quickly a crisis or decision-point occurs that threatens to change everything. The problem gets worse, and then gradually the heroes (in analytics perhaps, or those amazing customers and what they told us) wrest the flight controls off the dead pilot and set about bringing this aircraft down safely.  Most story structures rack up the tension and then engage in the process of solving the problems. Always, there are decision-moments along the pathway.

3) You need characters – especially good guys. Now in crunching Big Data, you’re reporting on numbers, right? Well, not quite. Those numbers represent people – so it can be useful to pull out one line of data, give the customer a nickname  – Honest Harry – and use him as a cipher to tell the big story. Here’s where Harry faces a choice – what will he do?  Personify the data. Don’t forget there are other characters in the story as well – including the analytics team.  

4) Setting.  A good story is underscored by the setting. High Noon took place in a lonesome, Godforsaken town miles from any help.  This framed Gary Cooper’s dilemma and added to the tension. CSI uses Las Vegas or NYC to good effect to create for each series a memorable backdrop against which their problem solving skills stand out in stark relief. When you’ve got 30 minutes to stand up and report on what your analytics have found – don’t forget to devote 3 or four minutes setting the scene.

5) Satisfactory denouement. The wrap up of the story had darn well better sing – not fizzle out. So in putting together your presentation or report think hard about this.  The plane is coming in to land, there’s ice on the runway and a small child (and a few nuns, there are always a few nuns) in the passenger cabin.  Structure the story so that when the ending occurs – the 747 ploughs through the snow on its only wheel before coming to rest right outside departure gate 9 – everything wraps up tidily. The hero gets home for thanksgiving. The little girl is saved. The nuns collective faith is restored. 

Now in writing these things I come over as pretty glib. Yet I’ve seldom done a presentation without thinking of these elements. At first I thought it was just a duty, if you have a story, tell it well.

But these days there’s a much bigger reason for storytelling skills to be employed in the boardroom. Big Data deals with 8 zillion narratives. You want this to be the one that the decision-makers remember.

5 thoughts on “What a good, memorable story requires.

  1. The problem is that, as an expert witness, a market researcher does not have the opportunity to present a story to “His Honour” – just cold hard facts that in most cases the Judge will ignore through lack of understanding or preconceived judgement of the outcome

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    1. Yes – a good helpful guide. “Story Craft – the complete guide to writing narrative nonfiction.” University of Chicago Press. Suits those who really wish to dissect their own writing and build up their technique from scratch. It will be a leap for many researchers who write bullet points – but in the future our reporting will be less a procession of facts and more inclined to be grand narratives.

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