“It was a dark and stormy night…”

My friend Bill Quain says that the four most important words for an author are: “Tell them a story.” In years of writing and public speaking, I have found no more powerful instruction for a communicator.

Ira Glass of This American Life giving a lectu...
Ira Glass – Image via Wikipedia

So what’s a story? From Google: “A message that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events.” This innocent definition c

ontains some powerful thoughts:

  • “A message”–“An object of communication, or the contents thereof.” While “message” has come to mean a communication with a purpose, the original and more general usage is simply a clump of stuff, usually intended to convey some meaning. That would include words, sounds, pictures, perhaps smells and tastes, or even just an experience.
  • “…that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events.” The particulars: What happened; to whom; when; where; how; why. The particulars put the reader/listener/message recipient into the frame of the story, engaging their senses.
  • “…act or occurrence or course of events” may in fact be too limiting. You can tell a story about an object–something that is just sitting there. The time element, which is probably important to engage the audience, can be introduced indirectly–the history of the object; something that is about to happen, or might happen.

Ira Glass, of This American Life, offers storytelling tips. The two main parts of a story are an anecdote and some reflection, according to Glass. He says, “The power of the anecdote is so great…No matter how boring the material is, if it is in story form…there is suspense in it, it feels like something’s going to happen. The reason why is because literally it’s a sequence of events…you can feel through its form [that it’s] inherently like being on a train that has a destination…and that you’re going to find something…”

Reflection is telling about the anecdote. Why am I telling you this? What’s important for you to know?

Dr. Clare Albright has some good storytelling tips, including:

  • Paint images with your words by appealing to the five senses.
  • Create suspense. Use a provocative sentence or question: “What had caused the tremendous explosion?”
  • “Use words that ‘sing.’ This would include words that inspire, words that imitate a sound, words that paint a beautiful picture, etc. Become an investigator on the prowl to find more words that have this kind of effect. Examples: sanctuary, crescendo, seaside, etc.”

(Read this about the original “…dark and stormy night.” When my kids were growing up, they were greatly entertained by the recursive, “It was a dark and stormy night, and a band of robbers was seated around a table. Suddenly, one of them said, “Hey, Jack, tell us a story!” And Jack said, “It was a dark and stormy night, and a band of robbers…”)

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Surprised by people

Your book is going to be read by people. Do you know anything about them? If you say, “Well, whoever is attracted to it will read it,” you are right. But you will attract more of the kind of people that you want to reach if you know something about them.

I’ve written about having an “avatar” in mind when you are writing your book. And I try to do that as well. Within the past few days, I was twice surprised by people, who turned out to have backgrounds, interests, and experiences I would never have imagined.

A friend asked me to substitute for her at a BNI meeting. Having been a member myself, I knew I’d enjoy it–and I did. And I met a gentleman there who surprised me.

His name is Alex Lubin, and he has a business that employs professional handymen. (I highly recommend him if you’re within 50 miles of Sunnyvale, CA.) We chatted for a while. Turns out he has a PhD in computer science from Stanford; was vp of Cadence, an electronic computer-aided design company with which I am very familiar; created and sold an intellectual property company based on Russian inventions; and more. Now he runs handymen.

This morning, I needed a notary. I put “notary” and my zip code into Google, and came up with All Things Notary, just a couple of blocks away. I drove over and found an unassuming house at the address. The notary pulled up right after I did, and invited me inside.

He took care of the notarizing, and we chatted a bit. He is Robin Roberts, PhD (business administration). He has a background in nuclear engineering; holds multiple patents; invented, built, and marketed the first device to print out (on paper) caller ID’s, then sold the company to Radio Shack; has been a professional photographer since the fifties; own a kennel (next door) together with his mother; has authored a book….

If I were writing for notaries, I wouldn’t have pictured anyone like Robin. If I were writing for handymen, or small business owners that rent out handymen, I would not have pictured Alex.

Yet the more I get to know people, the more I realize how wide a range of uniquenesses they exhibit.

So when you think of your readers, make room for a variety of qualities and interests.

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