Fine-tuning your storytelling

Manuscript by Seth Sawyers on Flickr

Manuscript by Seth Sawyers on Flickr CC-BY

Writing stories is difficult. That’s especially true if you’re used to writing in other formats, particularly in the academic world.

I recently went through a process of script development with friend of Netskills Dave White from Oxford Uni and thought the process was worth passing on for people who might be trying to do something similar.

The story Dave was producing was about his perspective on the innovative public engagement work that he and his team had been doing over the last year or so.

The script (take 1)

Here’s Dave’s first draft (click to open the PDF)…

Dave White's Script - 1st draft

Dave said that it felt like an unfamiliar approach to writing for him. He said his natural style for something like this topic would be akin to a blog post. While blog posts can tell brilliant stories, a digital story needs something quite specific. I think that’s something that many people encounter. We’re trained to write in particular ways and writing stories, with their overt reliance on personal experiences can feel very uncomfortable for most people.

Dave said later:

“The main thing for me was that I wasn’t used to talking about my *personal* experience of a project. I went into promoting-project mode.”

I thought it would be useful to explain some of the feedback I gave him that led to his final version. It’s difficult when you’re giving constructive criticism on something this creative and personal but Dave’s a good egg and was very open to it.

The feedback

It’s a good piece of writing. It’s very clear in it’s explanation of the importance of the work Dave’s group had been doing. That’s usually where we suggest people start. Having a clear idea of what your story is about helps with the process of what to put in and, sometimes more importantly, leave out.

What we wanted to help Dave create was something that was very strong in its storytelling. Although there are elements of a story in the first draft they come quite late on when he talks about Pi Day Live and Maths in the City. These were the main pieces of feedback I gave him:

  • The focus should be on something that happened, an event or conversation so I suggested he reorder things so that mention of these comes first. This makes the anecdotal side of the story more prominent.
  • Just deal with one event. The draft mentions 2 projects and the risk is that the story loses impact by trying to do with 2 separate things. It’s much better to pick one.
  • Start by talking about a crucial moment like a point of no return or where there was a sudden moment of realisation. This creates a feeling of tension that hooks the audience and you can resolve later.
  • The story doesn’t have to be told in chronological order. You can start with that crucial moment, use “flashback” to explain what brought you to there and then jump forward to show how it all turned out. Done well it creates quite a rich narrative when doing a simple beginning, middle and end structure doesn’t create enough interest.
  • Include something about the impact of what you did. Stories are about change so it helps if you can point to something that shows what you did made a difference.
  • Nail the first and last sentences. They are the ones that grab the attention, set the tone and then leave the audience with something memorable that resonates after the story has finished. Dave’s done a really interesting trick of using his last line as his title as well which bookends the story and brings it full circle.
  • Talk about people and talk about yourself. People can relate to other people much more than they can to facts, ideas or opinions.
  • It’s OK to talk about how something felt. People expect that in a story bit this can feel very uncomfortable if you’re not used to it in this sort of context.

The story

Here’s the finished article

The video Dave produced is a highly polished bit of media, beyond what many without his skills and resources would be able to create easily but it’s the strong story that’s the basis for it and which could quite happily stand alone without the visual elements. Try just listening to the story without the visual accompaniment.

The other reason I really like the script that Dave arrived at is that it uses a sort of “dip in and out” structure. He spends a bit of time telling the story of something that happened, then explains a bit of context, then back into the story, then a bit more explanation and so on. It’s a good technique for maintaining the audience’s interest.

Compare this video with the first draft draft of the script when you watch it. What else do you notice Dave has changed?

It makes an interesting companion piece to the video Hanna produced for us, describing Netskills’ involvement in the same project. It’s very different in terms of style; more journalistic. Hanna blogged about it a while ago.

So, how would you tell the stories of what you do?

2 thoughts on “Fine-tuning your storytelling

  1. Pingback: Fine-tuning your storytelling | Methinks

  2. Pingback: Digital Storytelling for public engagement at #digifest14 | Methinks

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