Corporate intranets contain many articles but fewer stories. Adding narrative elements can elevate a ho-hum article to an engaging story.
The word story is loosely applied to almost any article, and for the sake of discussion we can use the term broadly, because certain elements of stories also apply to articles: a strong opening paragraph, specific details, clarity, and efficiency. But while most articles comprise facts, numbers, and supporting details, a story transcends pure information. David Von Drehle, a writer for Time magazine, said in a phone conversation, “You could give someone a printout of your daily calendar and read along with them: ‘I did this at 8 a.m.; at 8:30 I did this. Or you could say, ‘You wouldn’t believe what happened to me today!'”
Stories are less about news and more about human events and experiences. Here are four important elements in an engaging story:
The advance work
Good feature writing requires being mentally present in your writing task from the time you receive the assignment, not just at the last minute when you sit down to write. Thinking about your topic ahead of time means doing the necessary advance work. Good writing is rooted in reporting: the researching, the interviewing — knowing what questions to ask to get the information you need — and the brainstorming, as you lay out your topics and thoughts on paper (or screen).
Everyone knows that the purpose of the lead paragraph is to capture attention, yet so few of them do. A lead can be direct, summarizing the essence of the piece in the first sentence or two, but that’s more common in a hard-news story or perhaps a news feature. An indirect lead, commonly used on human interest feature stories, lures the reader in with a tantalizing detail or description but withholds the point of the story until the second or third paragraph. A few techniques can achieve this effect.
In corporate writing we have a great opportunity to write about employees who exhibit enthusiasm, perseverance, dedication, and courage, but to bring those stories alive, help the reader visualize. You need precise details that provide imagery, enabling the reader to identify with the person and her experience. Too often, writers resort to stock modifiers and assume they pass as description. When you describe a person as having “boundless enthusiasm and energy,” you leave it to the reader to imagine what that means, because there is nothing specific in those words. When a city is described as being in “rugged winter country,” the reader has no sense of how cold it is, how high the snowbanks are, or what life is like for residents. What does rugged mean?
Varied sentence structure and effective transitions between sentences and paragraphs are two tools for creating graceful fluid writing that enables readers to breeze through your prose.
Ken O’Quinn conducts writing and managerial workshops for corporations. A former Associated Press writer, he is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business and is a contributing author of Focus on Them, about leadership.