The technical writer as storyteller

A big pile of bananas

It’s a song about a fatal highway wreck. So why did concert audiences love “30 Thousand Pounds of Bananas“? Because Harry Chapin was such a good storyteller.

Storytelling is hot right now. The social-media and marketing gurus tell us that we reach our customers by telling stories: stories they want to hear, stories they relate to. Case in point, from just a couple of days ago:  Why Every Tech Company Needs an English Major. (I love the catchy title.)

But we reach our customers through more than just marketing. Can we technical communicators also apply the principles of storytelling?

Yes, according to Alan Porter, who combines his personal interest in comics with his professional interest in tech comm. In Organizing Content as Story, Tom Johnson nicely summarizes Alan’s insights and then provides some of his own.

I admit to having mixed feelings: While I enjoy good stories — from 30,000 Pounds of Bananas to the Canterbury Tales — I struggle to write them. (Believe me, I’ve tried.) I think that my strengths lie in teaching, in explaining — but not in storytelling.

So I’m heartened by Tom’s article, especially by his example about subscribing to a calendar. Maybe I can’t weave a spellbinding tale, but I can do what he did. If I shift my viewpoint to see the task from my reader’s perspective, I’m halfway there.

How do you apply storytelling principles to technical communication? Can you cite an example of technical content that does this especially well?

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4 thoughts on “The technical writer as storyteller

  1. dianalogan

    Interesting post. If you already work with personas, these lend themselves nicely to weaving narrative into tech comms. Skip to 1min 10secs in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlZU4n4iGFU&feature=share&list=PL0ceIXOjvnJ5hyX9pZ9tNtJ1_ndZvya_A&index=19 for an example from the sagecrm video channel of how personas “Susan” and “John” were used. It’s not a literary masterpiece, but if your personas are good, it can be very effective.

    Reply
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