How To Tell A Story

I remember the first time someone impressed upon me the usefulness of storytelling. Back in 2000 a researcher came to Razorfish to study how we worked in order to improve our knowledge sharing. He told me how Secret Service agents studied storytelling so that, if they suddenly found themselves in the back of a car with the President for 5-minutes, they could quickly summarize all the pertinent facts about a situation in a format that was more likely to be absorbed.

And now, eight years later, I’m finally getting around to working on my storytelling skills. Barry McWilliams wrote a great set of guidelines for storytelling in his Effective Storytelling: A manual for beginners

Characteristics of a good story:

  • A single theme, clearly defined
  • A well developed plot
  • Style: vivid word pictures, pleasing sounds and rhythm
  • Characterization
  • Faithful to source
  • Dramatic appeal
  • Appropriateness to listeners

Adapting to our audiences:

  1. Take the story as close to them as you can.
  2. Keep it brief and simple
  3. Stimulate their senses so they feel, smell, touch and listen and see vivid pictures.
  4. Describe the characters and settings, and help them sympathize with the character’s feelings.
  5. Aim your story at the less experienced when telling to a mixed audience

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Authority vs. Truth

If you haven’t yet heard David Weinberger’s position on authority vs. truth in media — the disclosure of accuracy in mainstream media vs. Wikipedia — you should, it’s one of his best ideas.

If you visit the article on “conservativism” at Wikipedia, you’ll see–at least as of this writing–a strong warning at the top, complete with a graphic of a hand warning you to stop:

“The neutrality of this article is disputed. Please see discussion on the talk page.”

…The question is why we don’t see these warnings in newspapers and especially in newspaper archives.

Luke has a nice outline summary of Weinberger’s opening plenary at IA Summit 2006. The whole summary is worth reading, but especially the part on authority.