Advanced Business Writing
Rhetoric and Narrative
What a story is
Stories that people tend to like often follow a pattern of events and emotional reactions. Some call that pattern a story arc: from a starting point, rising to a challenge, returning back down to a satisfying end. The basic story arc is setup, conflict, resolution. In greater detail, here is the arc, and its effect on the reader:
exposition - (concerned)
complication - (anxious)
climax - (surprised)
reversal - (sad)
resolution - (happy)
How stories work (on us)
Psychologists say that stories give us a way to feel we have control over our world: they help us see patterns and meaning instead of chaos and randomness. That is what stories can do. We will start by considering how they do it. Fundamentally, the power of stories has to do with our biochemistry:
• When observing conflict or tension, our brain produces cortisol, which helps us focus.
• When enjoying resolution, our limbic system releases dopamine, which helps us feel more hopeful.
• The information we are exposed to when under the influence of these biochemicals is information that is better stored in our memory: as much as 20 times better. Seriously, look it up. (search keywords: stories 22 aaker)
• When we are reminded later about the information, the same biochemicals are released again, making us more engaged and more likely to act. Prove it to yourself: watch a TED Talk, wait a week, then think about it again and note how you are feeling.
Why stories are used
Three common uses of story in the workplace are:
• indoctrinate - increase buy-in and comfort with the job
• educate - improve acquisition of knowledge or skills in reasoning
• inspire - encourage proactivity to follow or to lead
Which stories work
Certain kinds of stories are known to be effective:
• founder's passion - tell why and how it flourished
• employer's compassion - tell why people are thrilled to work here
• customer's rescue - tell how a customer's frown was turned upside down
• buyer's curiosity - tell a tale that increases perceived value (search phrase: "significant objects")
How to tell a story
For starters, use the basic story arc:
(1) set it up - exposition, complication
(2) make it hurt - conflict, climax, reversal
(3) make it all better - resolution, or dénouement
For stories at work to be effective, they can be as short as three sentences, but should probably not exceed three paragraphs. Here are some examples with the setup underlined, the climax in italics, and the resolution in bold:
It all started when her husband was hit by a car and unable to walk. Because of her research expertise, she knew he needed cognitive testing that doctors often did not approve. She developed a cognitive testing program, but knew she lacked the skills to make it easy to use. So she talked about it on LinkedIn and found a programmer from Zynga to make it happen. Because she championed her husband's care and recovery, he was climbing mountains two years later. Now, with Savonix, she is determined to help others obtain similar outcomes with less frustration.
A tornado completely destroyed our home. No one was injured, but the assessment of damages was shocking. Almost as surprising was the reaction of colleagues at work. A VP paid for my family to stay at a hotel, and officemates took over my workload until I was able to return. I love working at CHG because the culture is absolutely unique. Where else would employees fund tax-free grants to colleagues facing hardships?
In rural Pennsylvania, an 89-year-old WWII veteran was snowed in and running out of food. His worried daughter called local groceries and markets asking for delivery. With more bad weather looming, none were willing. Out of desperation, she called one retailer that did not deliver food. They not only said yes, they assisted with low-sodium food choices, completed the order, said "Merry Christmas!", delivered it in 30 minutes, and refused to charge for the delivery. This is not typical behavior: retail workers are carefully trained to follow rules of the trade. Crew Members at Trader Joe's, however, know that doing the right thing is the right thing to do.
Lesson: Power of Story
Module: Rhetoric and Narrative
Course: Advanced Business Writing