Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Seven Darn Good Reasons Why You Should Tell Me a Story

A group of judges is gathered in court. But instead of looking grand and imperial in their robes, they appear to be naked. And, puzzlingly, they are arrayed, under blankets, in a selection of beds spread out behind the bench.

No, let me reassure you this didn't happen in real life. It's simply a cartoon from the New Yorker. A lone lawyer stands at a microphone in front of the justices receiving instructions. The caption? "O.K., counselor, we heard your argument. Now tell us a story."

Most parents of three-year-olds can probably relate to this cartoon. But so should you! Telling stories — and telling them well — is probably the single most important job facing any writer. And guess what? Stories aren't just for novelists. They're for everyone from the CEO to his or her most junior communications staffer.

Here are 7 reasons why you should work hard at telling more stories in your non-fiction writing:

1) Stories have a natural rhythm. Tell a story and you'll automatically start with the most interesting material. At the same time, you'll give details exactly where they belong and you'll end by reinforcing the key point you want to make. This kind of structure gives you a big, paint-by-numbers approach to your work. It helps make writing easier and less painful.

2) Stories humanize the realities of the business world. Have you ever sat through speeches and started to drift off into ZZZZZ-land as the speakers rambled on about statistics or core values? And, yet, didn't you snap to attention when they suddenly told you a story about something that happened in the office or, better yet, a story about their own non-work lives? We're all hardwired to love stories. Growing up and getting a serious job doesn't change that one iota.

3) Stories carry a sense of momentum; they have their own natural tension. The middle of a good story leaves the reader wondering, "Yeah, and what happened, next?" As a writer, isn't that exactly what you want — readers desperate for your next sentence?

4) Stories are sticky, or, in other words, memorable. More than 16 years ago (I know the timeframe because it was before my children were born) I heard a radio interview with career coach Barbara Sher, author of I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What it Was. This woman is a masterful speaker and I'll never forget her story about a cab driver who wanted to become a cake baker. Sher advised the driver to launch her career by baking "surprise" and anonymous cakes for major public events. Turns out, the woman succeeded by having one of her cakes cause a big (and positive) sensation at an event in Chicago. While I wouldn't advise that approach now, post 9/11, I highly recommend telling memorable stories. That I remembered this cake anecdote for 16 years should be a testament to the theory.

5) Stories force you to use concrete language. People get into writing trouble when they start using too many abstract words. You know what I mean — Superman's motto of "truth, justice, and the American Way" is a great example of abstract language. Instead, better writers talk about things you can touch, taste, smell and hear — concrete words. Such language helps create visual images in the readers' minds. If I say the word "association" do you get a clear visual image? Probably not! But if I say, desk, or flower or dog, your mind's eye likely creates a picture. Add even a simple verb — such as, "sits," "smells" or "barks" and the picture is clearer. Stories will keep you in the world of the concrete. Strong visual images = good writing.

6) Stories will help make your writing more believable. I don't know about you but I've always been astonished by the number of movies and TV shows that make a big deal about being based on true stories. (Frankly, I always think good fiction is more amazing!) But there's something in the human psyche that loves the concept of being true to life. Tell your own stories and you'll be satisfying a basic human need.

7) Stories allow people to persuade themselves of the point you're trying to make. You then simply become the person who is presenting the evidence. And the better your stories, the more persuasive you will be.
Become a good storyteller and your clients, your bosses and your colleagues will all remember you – as someone who knows how to write.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 16th 2010, 8:31 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Great column! Thanks, Daphne. And yes, the birth of the children would give a benchmark...

I have a friend in England who does just that with her anecdotes about her work. We feel we work along with her when she goes story mode.
Wednesday June 16th 2010, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Rachel V. (Methuen, MA)
Great article. Thanks!
Wednesday June 16th 2010, 11:37 PM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
Great article. Down south, where I live, telling stories, as we rock on the front porch, is our therapy.
Wednesday June 16th 2010, 11:53 PM
Comment by: Paul C. (Kaneville, IL)
Yes, I liked your article. I would tell you a story but I worked so hard today that I can barely keep my eyes open even though it's only 10:52 p.m. I'll tell you a story some other time. Thank you for your article. pc
Wednesday June 16th 2010, 11:53 PM
Comment by: Paul C. (Kaneville, IL)
Yes, I liked your article. I would tell you a story but I worked so hard today that I can barely keep my eyes open even though it's only 10:52 p.m. I'll tell you a story some other time. Thank you for your article. pc
Thursday June 17th 2010, 12:33 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Glad you enjoyed the column. I just returned from leading a workshop for the Canadian Association of Public Relations and attendees told me that the keynote address was given by a newscaster who -- in the words of one participant -- basically strung a bunch of stories together. Everyone LOVED it (and I was so sorry to have missed it!) -daphne
Thursday July 1st 2010, 12:39 PM
Comment by: Dashby (Tucson, AZ)
I very much enjoyed and appreciated your article. While I am known at work as "the writer," I have never considered using story telling as a means to communicate the mundane, and instead shift into business writing gear as I walk through the doors every morning. Incorporating A story-telling mindset will certainly jazz up my writing at work, and not only will I have more fun, but I imagine my audience will appreciate the change as well. Thanks for the marvelous ideas.

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