How To Arrange The Elements Of Your Story

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Wednesday, 5.31am

Sheffield, U.K.

Nonfiction is both easier and harder to write than fiction. It’s easier because the facts are already laid out before you, and there is already a narrative arc. What makes it harder is that you are not free to use your imagination and creativity to fill in any missing gaps within the story. – Amy Bloom

Why should we believe you?

Why should we buy into your idea, sign your proposal, invest in your scheme, go with what you say?

In the last few posts on this book project I’ve been discussing ways to look back at your life and get a sense of what you’ve done.

The idea is to look at things from multiple perspectives and, as you do that you will start to notice significant elements, from significant events that influenced you to specific creative opportunities that helped you grow.

We need to capture these memories.

The power of slips of paper

Robert Pirsig’s book Lila describes the way in which the main character, Phaedrus, documents his research on slips of paper.

When you write things down on paper, you freeze them in place.

What we want to do is capture your thoughts but put them into a form that’s flexible and useful for what we want to do next.

Get a stack of index cards or tear up some A4 paper that you need to recycle into 4 parts.

It’s time to mine for memories.

Look back at your past and start to jot down key memories about what you’ve done so far.

On one slip, you might make a note about a school you attended.

On another, a particular class that opened your mind.

Perhaps notes about each of the mentors you had and what you learned from them.

A note about each of the projects you’ve done and what’s significant about them.

These notes don’t need to be long and detailed, a few words will do unless you want to add detail.

Now, you could write about anything and everything, so how do you keep from writing forever?

Perhaps the time to worry about that is after you’ve got a few down – for most people the act of remembering and writing is going to be naturally tiring and you’ll stop after a while.

So perhaps give yourself twenty minutes or so to write as much as possible and then sit back to look at what you’ve done so far.

What is your purpose?

The reason why you are collecting these memories is to support the project that you’re trying to get started on.

For example, let’s say you want to start a business as a consultant, doing something you specialise in like analysis or data management.

You’ve made things a little more challenging by handing in your resignation shortly before the start of a global pandemic and it’s important that you get something in place fairly quickly.

Now, let’s say you are given the opportunity to pitch to a prospect – what are you going to do to get them interested in you?

You could list a series of facts about yourself.

Or you could tell them your story.

What is a story?

A story, your story, is at its simplest a telling of one thing that happened after another.

This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.

The things are connected in time and you go from start to finish like travelling along a road.

What do you need to keep in mind when making that journey?

The first is to recognise that there is a main path, one that takes you from start to finish.

Other paths and side roads are not relevant to this particular story.

The second is that darting about to different points in the road is probably not the best way to make the journey.

Going from start to finish along the road is the most effective way, unless you find that it’s useful to dart forwards and back, flash forward or back.

The third is that an interesting road is not a straight line from A to B, a narrative arc is more interesting.

So, how do you tell your story?

Arranging the elements of story

Let’s go back to those slips of paper.

The first thing to do is put them in order.

You can do that simply by taking two slips and comparing them.

Does one come before the other in a narrative – did one happen before the other?

If so, arrange them in order.

Then pick up the next slip and compare them with the ones you’ve already ordered.

They will fit in there somewhere.

Repeat until done.

When you’ve finished you will have an ordered pile of slips of paper that set out key memories as they’ve happened over time.

You now have the raw materials for your stories.

Creating a narrative arc

Let’s go back to that example of a consultant and that pitch.

What is it that the prospect wants?

They may have a “presenting problem”, something they say is an issue that they’re looking for help with.

That’s their state at the start of your discussion.

When you’ve finished doing your work you want to have helped them solve that issue, improve their state.

And so the purpose of the stories you tell is to provide proof, a narrative of how you’ve done that before so that they can see that you know what you’re doing and should believe that you have the ability to solve their problem.

Too many people spend these valuable pitch minutes talking about things unrelated to the presenting problem.

Not you, not when you have your slips of paper at the back of your mind.

You can draw on the ones that create a linear narrative that provides proof of what you can do.

And you make it interesting by following an arc – a road or through-line – that connects the elements.

Start with the introduction – I’ve solved this very problem in a few other situations.

Provide a build up – for example, I was in this situation and these were the challenges we were facing.

Rise to the main problem – things came to a head because we had to deliver in two weeks and our systems just couldn’t cope.

Resolve the problem – what I did was create a set of spreadsheets that could work with our systems to deliver the information.

Provide an ending – and so we shipped on time and the client was happy.

That simple narrative is often much more powerful than a list of facts or certificates or courses you’ve taken.

Why does storytelling matter in business?

People don’t care about you and what you’ve done and why you’re so clever.

Not because they’re mean or cantankerous – it’s just they’re busy and they have their own problems.

They care about what you can do for them.

But they won’t just believe you – you have to show them why they should believe in you.

And the best way to do that is to provide proof – evidence that they should believe.

And the best way to present that proof is in the form of stories, narratives that describe how you did this, for whom and when.

And it helps if you can make it interesting.

Now that you know how to mine your memories, record them and select and arrange them to tell a story it’s time to find someone who’s willing to listen to you.

Let’s look at that next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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