Inventions in Storytelling
In working with business executives to help them tell stories, I encourage inventiveness. Just as there are utility, design, and plant patents (inventions), stories have three main areas where one can invent―substance, style, and structure.
SUBSTANCE is the content of the story. Are you talking about your adolescence, your home life, your workdays, big meetings? STYLE is how one tells it―the narrator, voice, word choice, and sentence structure. STRUCTURE is the way you organize the story—chronologically or by theme, set pieces that are interwoven or a series of flashbacks, etc.
I like to help executive clients become inventive in one of those areas when they tell a story so that their story has novelty and distinctiveness. This applies to any type of writing―a case study, stump speech, blog post, video script, and white paper.
I like to help executive clients become inventive in one of those areas when they tell a story so that their story has novelty and distinctiveness.
Here are general (e.g., not executive/business) examples of inventions in storytelling in the area of substance:
- Kitty Kelley’s Unauthorized Biographies—Kelley wrote unauthorized biographies such as His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, which became a New York Times best-seller. She always included content that straddled the thin line between unauthorized biography and gossip-mongering. Her style and structure are traditional but her substance—what she chooses to include vs. excludes—is inventive.
- Becoming by Michelle Obama—a black woman as first lady in the White House is inventive content. She had a novel experience and wrote with novel content. The style and structure of her tale are traditional. The unprecedented true-life content is what made it one of the best-selling memoirs in history.
There are many more examples, but the point is that some storytellers are inventive in the area of SUBSTANCE. One way I’ve helped my clients be inventive in storytelling for business is to convey surprisingly transparent content about an organization; instead of holding information close to the vest, be radically transparent with profit margins or human resource struggles.
STYLE is how one tells a story―the narrator, voice, word choice, and sentence structure. It’s not the channel of distribution or the medium; rather it’s the choice of narrator, lexicon, syntax, point of view, and voice. Some executives naturally have a distinctive, even inventive, style, such as:
- Elon Musk–The substance of his remarks is not inventive. He talks about himself, his companies, his products, his money, how bad politicians are, how dislikable people who “dis” him are, and how uncreative regulators are. He is not inventing new substances with those topics. However, he communicates with an inventive style. For instance, he called a British cave diver whom he disliked “pedo guy” (pedophile guy). That’s some inventive word choice (style)—so inventive, in fact, that his style got him in trouble with the law.
- TED Talks–The substance of TED Talks is not new. Big ideas, or little ideas expressed as big ideas; science and technology; art; seemingly insurmountable challenges in life and career. That substance is nothing new. But there is a trademark style that TED demands of its speakers’ scripts—moderately emotive word choice/low industry lingo, pose questions for the audience to ponder, add pregnant pauses (speaker’s fingers interwoven steeple style, camera pans to show audience enraptured by the ponderous question), etc.
- Market Wizards–I love this book by Jack Schwager because he styled it as purely interviews with traders and has very little of his voice in the book except for his incisive, informed questions. The near absence of the author’s voice was terrific. The book was a bestseller.
Examples abound of inventions in the style of storytelling. One way I helped a client invent in STYLE was to re-phrase everything the driven CEO said that was a complaint or negative into a solution or positive.
“We can’t lose ground to the competition. If we do, our profit margins will plummet” becomes “We’re going to do our best to gain on our competitors and increase our margins to the highest in the industry…” When the CEO did that over and over, his remarks became far more motivating.
If you’re writing for an executive and want to be inventive, think about inventing in the area of STYLE. For instance, you could have the executive write a blog post purely from the point of view of the customer. Or, you could have her interview customers and write a blog by her but infused with very little of her own voice.
Some executives naturally have a distinctive, even inventive, style.
Structure is the organization of the story. Do you choose to tell it chronologically, thematically, or with interwoven chronology and theme? A three-part book? A very short novella/Kindle-Singles type of thing? Maybe your main narrative consists of pictures, and your secondary narrative supports those. Perhaps you give a speech that is short and intense or, conversely, winding with lookbacks, anecdotes, and asides or out-takes?
Here are a couple inventive structures:
- Seinfeld–The backwards episode (aka “The Betrayal”). The New York Daily News wrote this headline, “Seinfeld Gets it all Backwards . . . Bold Episode Goes in Reverse After Starting at Conclusion.” It continued “By presenting the narrative straight backward, ‘Seinfeld’ makes it a more challenging, unusual and enjoyable viewing experience.” The backwards idea apparently came from a Harold Pinter (Nobel Prize for Literature) play.
- Svetlana Alexievich–She carefully constructs her books as collages of interviews, and the results are hauntingly beautiful. She interviews people (e.g., Afghan war families; Chernobyl victims) and then structures the conversations, book-wise, as amazing interwoven narratives that use only the words of the interviewees. Her works are phenomenally powerful, albeit crushing to read. She is so structurally inventive that not only did she win the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, but she also is the only non-fiction author ever to win the prize.
I love being inventive in STRUCTURE! That said, as a ghostwriter, I find it risky and exhausting to do so. First, it takes a lot of time to develop and rework a STRUCTURE. Second, my experience is that clients claim they want inventiveness, but when they see an inventive structure, they don’t know what to make of it; they look at me with pity and frustration. (I still send an invoice 😊.)
An example where I helped a client invent structure was to have the executive tell stories of people in his life/career before telling his own story. A standard storytelling structure is opposite—the executive’s story comes first, then writes about how that influenced interactions with others. So, telling stories of others and then, at the end of book, switching to his-narration-and-his-story jolted readers (in a good way).
“Oh,” they realized, “that explains why the story in Chapter One ended how it did; he was about. to get fired by his own boss.” Readers realized, in the later “reveal” about his own life, that they only had one part of the story. With the new info, they could reconsider the earlier stories.
Examples abound of inventive STRUCTURE in storytelling. If you’re writing for an executive and want to be inventive, think about inventing in the area of structure. Perhaps create a website with the equivalent of a “reverse chronology,” where Contact Us is the first and most prominent tab.
I love being inventive in STRUCTURE! That said, as a ghostwriter, I find it risky and exhausting to do so.
Point is SUBSTANCE, STYLE, and STRUCTURE interact and complement each other in wonderful ways that ultimately form the art, science, and inventiveness of storytelling. I never tell executive clients that I am thinking about their content in terms of substance, style, and structure because they don’t care how the sausage gets made. But when I ask questions to determine strategy for a speech, book, presentation, or other communication, I am always thinking about these building blocks.