How to write stories your readers will love (based on real conversation).

 

Did I ever tell you about how I got kicked out the school choir?

I was the only one of my group of friends who wasn’t allowed to keep warm inside on Wednesday lunchtimes because I sounded more like Kermit the frog than Shirley Bassey. Growing up in Wales in the 80s and not being able to sing meant that I had plenty of free time on my hands.

Maybe all those wet and windy lunchtimes gave me my love of the great outdoors.

Girl in the rain

Why am I telling you this?

Have you ever heard the advice that you should write as if you were chatting to a friend over coffee? And if so, have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to do that?

Pull up a chair and listen because I have to tell you about this easy story framework that Australian linguists Suzanne Eggins and Diana Slade came up with (it’s an oldie but a goodie).

Use this framework and you’ll soon be telling stories as if you were on your best friend’s couch with a big mug of builder’s tea and a stack of Digestives.

If you want to skip straight to the action, scroll down to the framework and exercise at the bottom of the post — but if you want a bit of juicy background, then keep reading.

 The reasearchy bit

Looking at casual conversations in different contexts, Eggins and Slade realised there were patterns that kept coming up. Now, we all know that story patterns exist (think about the brothers Grimm, with once upon a time fairy tales, or the Disney films that we all know and love to hate after our kid demands to watch Frozen for the umpteenth time). 

What is different about the Eggins and Slade frameworks is that they are based on patterns in casual conversations rather than on folk tales. A modern day story collection of story frameworks if you will (and by the way, if you write fiction, these different story frameworks can help the ‘chat’ in your books sound more convincing).

It’s a collection of frameworks rather than just one, as Eggins and Slade noticed that there were different types of story depending on function and that these different kinds of stories (like a narrative or an anecdote) have a different structure.

One key feature of casual conversation is that its function is social — it focuses on building relationships and bonds. If we know that  business is about building our relationships, then why wouldn’t we want the stories we tell in our business to follow a conversational pattern?

A transformational narrative

One of the patterns Eggins and Slade identified, the narrative, follows a problem/ solution pattern. It’s perfect for when, as business owners, we are talking about our own transformations or the transformations of our clients.

The basic moves are:

Abstract (telling the listeners what the story will be about and why they should listen — e.g. becoming a great vocalist after being kicked out the school choir).

Orientation (who the story is about, where and when — e.g. me in a wet and windy Welsh town, my group of buddies,  and the bald choirmaster, Mr Morris).

Complication (‘a problem culminating in a crisis’, or in other words, the lightbulb moment — e.g. another lunchtime of being bullied by the mean kids in the yard made me realise I should probably learn to sing).

Resolution (closing the plot or how was the problem resolved? E.g. finding out that singing more loudly rather than more quietly actually helped me to hold a tune and finding a foolproof method for learning to sing).

Evaluation (What was the point of this story? What is different for you now? E.g. I now know that singing is not a natural ability, but a skill that can be learned).

Coda or Call to Action –how does this relate to your business and what steps can the reader take now to learn more/ work with you or get to know you better? E.g. if you’d like to learn my secret method that can teach you to sing like Taylor Swift then sign up for my course here**.

**DISCLAIMER **

Ok, well I’m not a singing teacher and the last two sections above are wishful thinking, but you get the picture… You could be writing about helping women to get fit in their 40’s (if that’s you then please let me know!), or you could be writing about how you overcame your public speaking fear. Any story where you want to talk about a transformation that you or a client have overcome is ideal.

Where can you tell these stories? It could be an email to your list, a blog post, or a story in your book. Each of these genres will have a slightly different style (that’s a tale for another day), but the pattern and the message will be the same. 

Your turn

If you’re game, I’ve got a quick writing exercise for you to try which shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. 

Step one: Freewriting (10 minutes)

To have a go at writing your own story, think of a story you are telling about your business already, or one that you could tell. Either a story about yourself or one of your clients that shows the same kind of transformation that you deliver to your clients. Now just brain dump your story. Don’t worry about the structure or the style or using the framework just yet, just get the story down.

Step two. Story organisation (10 minutes)

Now have a go at organising your story under the headings.

Your story template

Abstract:

Why are you telling the story? How does it relate to the reader/ your ideal client avatar?

Orientation/ Setting the scene:

Who, what, when and where? What were the problems? What were you doing? What results were you getting?

Complication:

What happened to make you realise you needed to change? What was your lightbulb moment?

Resolution:

Closing the plot — what changed/ how did you change things? What new techniques did you learn?

Evaluation:

What was the point of this story? What is different for you now? What does your life look like now? How do you feel? What are you able to do with ease?

Closing/ CTA (okay, so in the original it was called a ‘coda’ but that’s a bit of a fancy pants linguist term and what we actually want is a call to action for our ideal client):

How does this relate to your business and what steps can the reader take now to learn more/ work with you/ get to know you better?

Now that we have the content of the story or the the ‘message’. The next thing would be to work on the style of the writing. That’s for another post.

Have a go at using the story framework and send me your story. I’d love to see!

Let’s get writing!

What I read so you don’t need to:

Eggins, S., & Slade, D. (1997). Analysing casual conversation. London: Cassell.

Useful books on telling your stories as a business owner:

Donald Miller, Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen

Jessica Zweig, Be: A No-Bullsh*t Guide to Increasing Your Self Worth and Net Worth by Simply Being Yourself

*If you decide to buy books from the links in this post, then I get a small percentage of the price. I only recommend books I love and that I think will help you :-). 

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