Advanced Business Writing
Rhetoric and Narrative

Narrative Style

Write something in a narrative format and your readers will be more interested in reading it. What do we mean by narrative? Here are two definitions:

• Narrative is story telling.

• Narrative, spoken out loud in an elevator, causes raised eyebrows of interest instead of drooping eyelids of boredom.

Start by using standard techniques: active voice, present tense (when possible and appropriate), and figures of speech (similes and metaphors).

In 1945, a variety store was bought.
[factual]

It's 1945 and he buys a variety store as modest as a five and dime shop.
[beginning to be interesting]

Increased customer debts were shown in last month's report.
[boring]

Last month's report showed an increase in customer debts.
[not as sleep inducing]

Engaging narrative requires more, though. Three things to add are:

• characters that do something
• sensory descriptions
• unique details

Characters that do something

Characters include real people, imagined people, or things described as behaving like people.

It's 1945 and Sam Walton buys a variety store as modest as a five and dime shop.

Last month's Accounts Receivable (A/R) Aging Report alerted us to an increase in customer debts.

Sensory descriptions

Give the reader's mind a reason to imagine experiencing with the senses: visual, aural, tactile, etc.

It's a bright, warm day in 1945 and Sam Walton buys a variety store as modest as a five and dime shop.

Last month's Accounts Receivable (A/R) Aging Report sounded an alarm about an increase in customer debts.

Unique details

Specificity invites attention: the more specific, the better. Oddly enough, the tinier the detail, the more universally engaging the narrative. Our memories are full of tiny, personal details. When you read someone else's tiny detail, your mind makes an association with one of your own. This moves you to pay attention to the narrative.

It's a bright, warm, September day in 1945, and Sam Walton buys a franchise for a Ben Franklin variety store as modest as a five and dime shop, in Newport, Arkansas.

Last month's Accounts Receivable (A/R) Aging Report sounded an alarm about a 23% increase in customer debts.

Finally, always use conversational language. More specifically, your conversational language. Start by not writing. Seriously. Take your hands off the keyboard and imagine: you are in a restaurant, sitting at a small table with a friend from work. "Tell me about it," your friend says. And you do. You start describing the stuff you need to describe. When you get to your third sentence, you are ready to write it down. Now start typing. The result will be conversational.

As characters, descriptions, and details are added, sentences can quickly become long. Conversations, however, are typically made up of shorter sentences. Often all you need to do is break up sentences and possibly re-arrange a few things:

It's a bright, warm, September day in 1945 in Newport, Arkansas. Sam Walton buys a franchise for a Ben Franklin variety store as modest as a five and dime shop.

Last month's Accounts Receivable (A/R) Aging Report sounded an alarm: customer debts increased by 23%.

Warning: To keep your readers engaged in your narrative, avoid interjections of qualifications, comments, or opinions.

It's a bright, warm, September day in 1945 in Newport, Arkansas. Sam Walton buys a franchise for a Ben Franklin variety store as modest as a five and dime shop, which is a common way to begin a career in small-town retail.
[distracting ending]

Last month's Accounts Receivable (A/R) Aging Report, which I'm not sure I trust, sounded an alarm: customer debts increased by 23%!
[intrusive interruption]

Interjections are intrusive. They pull readers out of the narrative. Even if readers get back into the narrative, they are subsequently less invested and pay less attention.

Note: Using an exclamation point at the end of a sentence is equivalent to saying, "Wow—isn't that surprising?" and that's a kind of interjection. Be careful with exclamation points!

Lesson: Narrative Style
Module: Rhetoric and Narrative
Course: Advanced Business Writing