Phaedrus read in a scientific way rather than a literary way, testing each sentence as he went along, noting doubts and questions to be resolved later… – Robert Pirsig, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
I picked up Shawn Coyne’s The story grid again today to have another go at wrapping my head around his unique approach to deconstructing a story.
There was a thought I had playing in the back of my mind after listening to an interview with Roald Dahl who said that writing books for children is much harder than writing one for adults.
This is because children, if they like a book, don’t read it just once.
They’ll read it again and again – maybe five times, maybe twenty – until they sometimes know it by heart.
I remember doing this – there was a time when I could simply run through the words of the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy in my mind.
So, when I had to sit down and write about something to do with business I wondered why you would put any less effort into that kind of communication than you would do with a story for children or adults.
In other words, how could you write better for your business?
Now – hopefully that doesn’t seem like an entirely pointless question – a lot of poorly written stuff is put out by businesses.
So, if you want to do better how should you approach the task?
First, do the work
The first thing that Coyne reminds us is that thinking is not the same as doing.
He writes about what he learned at a class called “Practical Aesthetics Workshop” which was all about “de-bullshitting stuff”.
It gave him practical, tangible tools – which came down to this quote.
“If you want to get stronger, you don’t think about the proper way to lift weights. You learn the proper way and then you actually lift weights. Pretty simple.”
This is worth keeping in mind.
All the strategy discussions in the world won’t change a thing if you don’t then do the work.
In fact, you’ll probably make better decisions if you first do the work and then go back and look at what happened and think about what you could do better.
Second, create a structure
The second thing that Coyne points out is that he likes to break things down into their component parts – a practice that comes from his science background.
So, he starts to create a taxonomy – breaking down the big stuff into smaller things and creating a structure that you can go through.
And then he goes on for several pages.
I’ve written previously about why Coyne’s approach is hard for me to follow without wanting to stick pins in my eyes – partly because the whole breaking things into parts is a hard task – and because it’s made worse by having to do it in Excel.
I will have to find a way to do the same thing in text files using something like Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten approach – which is the project that I’m going to give myself over the coming months – probably using some of Terry Pratchett’s books.
But, let me come back to structure.
Structure is something that you have to impose on your work – but also something that can emerge from your work.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to come up with some marketing material.
You could just type stuff straight into the computer – following a structure someone else has given you.
Or you could work through a couple of drafts, trying different things.
Both might work – perhaps differently.
What matters, in the end, is that what you create has a logic to it, a structure that works.
If you get the structure of a message right, then it acts like an internal skeleton, organising information and putting it in front of the reader at the right time so that they “get” it.
The structure is invisible but the impact it has is not – you end up with a satisfied reader.
Third, get rid of the bullshit
The last element is something that really only comes from a way of thinking where it’s important that things work.
In science or technology, for example, something works or doesn’t work – it can be tested.
Balls roll down a plane or a bridge remains standing when put under stress.
But, you also have the same thing when it comes to the arts.
An actor does her lines and the audience likes it or doesn’t – the lines land or don’t.
Yes, it’s a little more subjective and the audience matters – but on the whole you know if something succeeds or fails.
And it usually has something to do with the way the script or the story has been built.
And the way to test this is to check every line – think of it like building a raft.
You don’t want a raft made from a mix of logs and lead – you want the whole thing to float.
And in your business messaging every sentence that doesn’t help you float should be cut.
That includes all the fluff and fancy talk and things that you feel you should say.
Like the quote that starts this post, read each sentence, testing as you go along and note doubts and concerns that need to be resolved.
Then resolve them.
Don’t say that “You’re the best” – explain why, on what basis – go into the detail that justifies why you can say something like that.
And then don’t say it at all – put down all the things that result in the reader saying it for themselves.
It’s the old thing – show, don’t tell.
And it works just as well for business as it does for the arts.
And that’s because, when it comes down to it, business is an art.