Monthly Archives: August 2013

The 50:50 of story editing – balancing your production and selection time

The art of story telling isn’t solely in the writing, it starts with choosing the stories your audience will find most compelling – but what’s the best balance of time between these two activities?

Why spending as much time selecting stories as editing them is important

Following my last blog on Fact Sheet Flatliners, inspired by a series of four short videos by Ira Glass, Ira makes three observations in Part 2 – Finding the right story.

  1. It takes as much time to find a good story as it does to capture, edit and produce it.
  2. Half to a third of stories get canned.
  3. Edit aggressively, give yourself deadlines to constantly create, know that 1:5 will be great, the rest won’t be memorable – and that’s ok – you have to create work to get great work, no one does 100% great work constantly.

How do you know what stories to drop?

A pie chart showing 50% time for story selection and 50% time for production

Click to view full size

As corporate story tellers we can tend to focus on production, honing content that we hope will resonate with our audiences, but how much time do we spend on filtering content, and how much do we deselect, compared to that we choose?

An approach used to measure content in focus groups is to ask audiences what the test material makes them think, feel and would tell a friend. This gives a good framework for filtering content for potential stories too:

  • What will the audience think – is the story persuasive, is it realistic?
  • What will the audience feel – is it told with authenticity, does it engage emotionally?
  • What might the audience tell a friend – does it grab attention, is it memorable?

Take outs

  1. Spend as much time on story selection as production
  2. Use the focus group approach of considering what will your audience think, feel and tell a friend having heard each story as a way to select the ones most likely to engage to take to the production stage
  3. Know that half to a third of stories won’t make the grade, which will give those that do the greatest chance to be heard.

As a corporate story teller, what’s your experience? How much time do you devote to story selection rather than writing and publishing?

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Story telling – avoiding fact sheet flat liners

Story structures are great, but too much formula can lead to fact sheet flat-liners or drawn out disappointments that fail to get the audience engagement we know they’re great for.

Story telling is coming to the fore as a way of communicating and driving engagement, and it’s often accompanied by sound advice such as having a clear three act construct, a hero/protagonist, defined scenes, obstacles/opportunities, actions, resolutions and lessons learned. But whilst we stick rigidly to this structure we can still risk losing our readers.

Some advice from Ira Glass

Since 1995, Ira Glass has hosted and produced ‘This American Life’ a public radio show in the US that now reaches over 1.7 million listeners on over 500 stations weekly – and I think the techniques he suggests can really help put some drama into our corporate stories.

Ira’s advice is in a series of four short videos, each under 5 minutes, this blog is based on Part 1 – Story Format.

Ira points out that when we’re in school, we generally learn to tell stories around one argument that’s then supported by facts – which can be a little flat.

To build some drama and personality into his stories, Ira recommends using anecdotes and moments of reflection which he illustrates using an example of a what could be a really boring story – about a guy waking up and going to his front door.

Anecdotes and Moments of Reflection

1. Anecdotes

Ira suggests using anecdotes to build drama and that anecdotes have two elements, momentum and ‘bait’ for the listener:

A. Momentum: is used to give a sense that the events in a story follow each other – give a sense of a journey and a destination and build some feeling into the story. Often stories start with scene setting, but it’s important to add some emotion over and above location.

B. Bait: for the reader: stories work best when they raise questions for the listener – in Ira’s illustration, what will happen to the man when he opens the front door, where is he going, why is it so quiet? This way, the author manipulates the listener by choosing when to provide the answers, and adding in new actions that raise new questions.

2. Moments of reflection

Here’s the reason for the story, here’s the point, the return for the listener for paying attention.

What can go wrong with stories

Great anecdotes with weak or no moment of reflection are disappointing and frustrating. They make the story predictable and give the listener nothing new.

Boring anecdotes with important moments of reflection miss the mark too and worse yet, dilute the purpose of the story so the listener feels they’ve wasted their time.

I’ve drawn a quick ‘four box model’ here that illustrates the story sweet spot and some pitfalls to avoid based on Ira’s comments.

A four box model showing story types against anecdotes and moments of reflection.

Four box model showing story types against anecdotes and moments of reflection.

Stories aren’t like a long joke that ends with a punch line, they’re not a shopping list of activities, they have action sequences and moments of reflection multiple times through the story that deliver a memorable conclusion for the reader. And with corporate stories, there’s usually a conclusion we want the reader to remember.

My take outs:

  1. Structure is great, but avoid the fact-sheet approach where the reader feels they’re on a predictable path towards an obvious outcome.
  2. Stories need drama, and drama comes from people – try to involve more than one character in your story.
  3. No one wants to drive on a motorway continually, give your reader an interesting journey that will help them remember the destination when they get there.
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Swimming against the tide of ‘likes’, ‘+1s’ and social ‘splash’.

I’m wondering when the perceived tipping point in the corporate value of ‘social business’ is going to move from a sea of ‘likes’ and ‘+1s’ to quality employee engagement and self-development. Amidst growing demands to ‘work social’, until older ways of working are set aside to allow the necessary space to invest in ‘quality’ contributions, increased ‘volume’ is an erroneous measure of engagement.

Two things are fixed, the number of hours in a day, and the increasing demands to ‘work social’. Whilst we still work ‘old school’, there isn’t sufficient time to do little more than ‘like’ and ‘+1’. As more and more employees ‘engage’ in this way, the volume of this lower ROI contribution will increase and, like a corporate popularity contest, the most frequently visited content is deemed to be have the greatest value by dint of it being the most popular. True, it is a measure of engagement – volume, it’s not the return that organisations really seek, or which reflects employees developing the skills they were likely hired for – quality and value.

It may be that this is an adoption curve, that as employees dip their toes into the corporate social sea, they start out with the +1’s and the ‘likes’, get a bit more confident with the ‘that was great’ and ‘I’m not so sure’ comments, then start to wade out with questions, seeking more detail, and finally take the plunge and develop opinions, offer work for critique and truly engage with colleagues on a similar level.

No one can swim for you, and until you take the plunge yourself, you’ll never move any faster than you can wade, pushing against the weight of older ways of working – that’s if you’ve ventured off of the shore at all. I’ve tried to illustrate this in this ‘Return on Social Investment’ graphic.

Graph showing types of social content mapped against time.

Mapping social engagement, time and return.

The time needed for the quick ‘likes’ and ‘+1s’ is minimal, the engagement is low, and so is the return for the employee and the organisation. This moves up through feedback and opinion into conversation and dialogue and ultimately into more significant areas contribution – which takes significant time. Until older ways of working can be set aside to allow for content with value to be created or informed responses to be framed, the demands for ‘more social engagement’ will only be met by an increased volume of low quality contributions, and not the content and engagement that truly adds value.

My take outs:

  1. invest available time endeavouring to create content and considered responses
  2. try to avoid being sucked into the many content popularity contests
  3. support colleagues eager to learn how to swim and not just splash
  4. encourage the adoption of ‘social working’ and look forward to more quality time and return on work ‘social’ investment when the majority set down older tool sets that will allow for it.

I was prompted to write this article by Luis Suarez’s blog post ‘There Can Be No Resilience Without Transformation’, where Luis raises a number of issues, amongst them that “knowledge workers are no longer allowed to Play, Learn, Work” as “they (managers) come to you telling you you need to be social they all make it look like it is, yet again, another spreadsheet to fill-in, put the checkmarks in place and move on”.

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The Blog Quad – Are You In Blog Delight or Disappointment?

A recent work discussion swung to and fro considering whether all blog comments should be acknowledged in some way. Some were in favour, some were against, and as the discussion went on, it struck me that opinions centred on a combination of two things:

  1. whether the author wanted to receive feedback, or not
  2. whether the audience wanted to provide feedback, or not

As with a ‘two things’ combination, a four box model is never far behind, offering it’s ‘top right hand corner’ sweet spot – and here’s mine for blog posts, which I’ve called the ‘Blog Quad’.


In a nutshell, authors are disappointed when they want feedback but don’t engage their audience sufficiently for them to care to provide it. Audiences can get frustrated in a void of acknowledgement of their comments by authors happy to just ‘publish and be damned’. Everyone can be happy publishing and consuming when there’s no expectation of interaction either way or merrily engaging in on-going conversations about the content when there is – that sweet top right hand corner.

So the next time you’re frustrated with a void of comments or an absent author, you might want to give the ‘Blog Quad’ a glance.

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