Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Daddy, tell me a story!

February 2015

I have two daughters who love stories. When they were very young they wanted me to read to them every day. Now they're older they love reading books themselves. Sometimes we write stories together, about their real and imagined exploits. Our stories always have a beginning, a middle and an end.

To any psychologist, sociologist or anthropologist, this is hardly surprising. Story-telling is a fundamental part of human culture, arguably the most important aspect of culture. Accumulated knowledge is shared through story-telling, and has been since the dawn of speech (and possibly earlier).

It doesn't matter whether it's between members of a social peer group or from one generation to the next. A story is a way of encapsulating and communicating the salient features of an event, skill or person, ensuring that they are remembered long after everything else has been forgotten. "Once upon a time..."

Humans love stories. We are hard-wired to 'make sense' of events, to chain them together into a cause-and-effect structure that's meaningful, personal and egocentric. In fact we search for meaning in everything that happens to us, constructing stories of our lives that make perfect sense in hindsight. Yet these stories are largely works of fiction.

This is an incredibly powerful feature of human cognition. We know from studies of people with damage to specific areas of their brains that the drive to 'make sense' can lead to distortions of events to fit our internal narratives. We will twist the facts to create false continuity inside our heads. Supporting evidence that doesn't fit the storyline is simply discarded by our unconscious minds. This leaves only a neat chapter behind, slotting like a jigsaw puzzle piece into our mental autobiography.

Our minds perform amazing contortions to keep our sense of narrative intact. We overestimate our agency (our control of events) and wildly underestimate the role of chance, luck and other people's behaviour. This, amongst other reasons, is why you'll never hear two identical descriptions of an event by two different people. It's why eyewitness reports are notoriously unreliable.

We apply narrative filters to everything that happens to us, without even knowing it. The world really is different depending on who you are. No two human stories are the same, but we are all narrative creatures. We love stories and we live stories.

Which brings me to business. I've had the misfortune to read some business blogs recently, and the screamingly obvious omission from all of them is narrative. It's simply not there.

There might be a list of facts or a list of events, perhaps a half-hearted attempt at humour (intended to make the writer sound more human and friendly but usually coming across as creepy and weird), and... that's it. The end. 500 words or less. Full stop, or period if you prefer.

It's bloody awful, unreadable because there is no story. No beginning, middle or end. Just a wall of words. Post after post of pointless verbiage. An utter waste of time and electrons. To borrow a classical cultural meme from the UK, it is little more than Vogon poetry.

Far from reinforcing the company's brand message, it serves to destroy it. It disengages readers and sends them scurrying off to more interesting content, if only to give their brains a steam-clean and avoid lapsing into a boredom-induced coma.

The online world is full of badly-written dross masquerading as business content. With no narrative, there is no content in the strict sense of the word. These blogs and articles contain nothing. No story? No value.

So if you want your company to stand out online, you must take writing seriously and rise above the endless reams of dull business content. Writing is both a skill and a talent, something that can't be learned overnight, or even in a few weeks or months.

Do your organisation a big favour and hand the writing work over to somebody who truly can tell a tale. Your readers - who are also your potential customers - will thank you for it.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and knows how to spin a good yarn.

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