Tag Archives: story

What’s your leadership story?

monster.png

Monsters are part of Harry Potter’s world. Some leaders would like us to think they’re part of our world too. (Image credit below)

In the run-up to last June’s Brexit referendum, J.K. Rowling wrote a brilliant piece about storytelling:

“I’m not an expert on much, but I do know how to create a monster,” she began, going on to say that all political campaigns tell stories and that one side in the referendum — the Leave side — had worked especially hard to create monsters, or villains.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, writing a day after the vote was taken, explained the outcome by saying the populist Leave side had told its story better than the political center — the Remain side — had:

“The political center has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent.”

He didn’t say that Leave had a better story. He said they told it better.

In politics the spoils often go to the best storyteller.

I’ve found that in leadership in general, the best storytellers make the most effective leaders.

Beginning, middle, and end

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. For many leaders, including politicians, the beginning and the middle are simply a recap of the listeners’ current circumstances.

The end, in politics, is often about the bad things that will ensue if you vote for the other side. (Enter the monsters.) In true leadership, the end is about the good things that will happen if you follow me, or if we work together.

An emotional connection

A story makes an emotional connection with the listeners. Too often in today’s politics that connection is rooted in fear. In leadership the best connections are rooted in shared hopes and in a sense of cohesion, of belonging. We’re in this together, and together we’ll succeed.

Linking technical writing and leadership

Several of us, notably Mark Baker, have pointed out that storytelling is essential to technical writing as well. We guide our readers from a beginning point through a set of steps (the middle) to the desired outcome (end).

We try to connect emotionally with our readers: gaining their confidence, reassuring them as they move through the steps, and congratulating them when they finish.

Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does, as long as we remember that we’re storytellers and that our calling is to help people meet their goals.

What do you think? If you’re a technical writer who became a leader, did you find that your skill at the one helped you succeed in the other?

What’s your leadership story?

Update, 30 June 2016: My colleague Ray Gallon has broken down the “Leave” story in detailed and illuminating fashion. Highly recommended: The Morning After: Brexit of Champions.

Image credit: Bob McCabe, Jody Revenson, Moira Squier – Harry Potter Page to Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey 

Tell your story, respect your reader

Look at these two maps. They’re based on the same data: population gain or loss by county. But they tell vastly different stories.

In the first map, the graphic artist started with the two extreme values in the data set (-6.3% and +28.7%) and divided the color scale into 5 equal pieces. As a result, all of the counties losing population are lumped together with counties that had no change or that posted slight gains.

usmap1

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

The map tells us that a lot of counties lost population or held steady, several counties added population, and exactly two (one in the top middle and one near the bottom middle) added a lot of population. Frankly, it’s not much of a story.

Now look at what the Washington Post‘s Christopher Ingraham did with the same data. Ingraham changed the color scheme: blue counties gained population and red counties lost. The color intensity changes for counties that gained or lost more than 1% or 2%.

usmap2.png

Source: Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post

Now you can see a story. Continue reading

Living and Learning

I firmly believe that if you’re not learning, you’re not living. With that in mind, let’s look at some things I learned in 2015:

Robot reading a book

That new technologies can tell stories — and what that might imply for the future

How not to enhance a brand — whether it’s your company’s or your personal brand

Sound advice on the art of estimating projects for technical communication (I especially recommend the two articles that are linked in the postscript)

The importance of connotations: of using words in the way your reader understands them, not in the way you think your reader should understand them (or as Mark Baker might phrase it, writing in a way that makes use of the stories you share in common with your reader)Advertisement in Swedish, with the English expression "No way!" prominently displayed

An amusing example of how languages evolve and interact with each other

The need for patience, and resisting the impulse to jump in and do it now

Pluto as seen by New HorizonsTwo essential skills for every nonfiction writer: knowing what to take out, and letting readers experience the story for themselves

Making mistakes, and learning from them

 

My most-read article this year, by far, posed the question What should a Technical Communication course teach? The responses to that article proved the need for a profession-wide conversation on this topic, but (alas) I don’t think the conversation has gotten off the ground. Yet.

Perhaps that’ll change in 2016 — a year in which I look forward to lots more living and lots more learning.

What was the coolest thing you learned in 2015? The most surprising thing?

John McPhee on writing for your reader

John McPhee writes in this week’s New Yorker about two essential skills for every nonfiction writer: knowing what to take out, and letting readers experience the story for themselves. For McPhee, the two are inextricably linked.

Because McPhee expresses his ideas far better than I could, I’ll use his words and then provide commentary.

Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material — that much and no more.

Photo of John McPhee

John McPhee (Source: Office of Communications, Princeton University)

Some of McPhee’s books and articles have grown much larger than he envisioned them initially, because as he dug deeper he found more and more that was interesting. Still, he says, before a story goes into final production there’s always something that would best be taken out.

He describes the bygone process of greening, in which a writer has to strike (using a green pencil) a certain number of lines from a finished magazine article so that it fits the space. He still teaches greening to his writing students. Sounds like a good idea for us technical writers as well.

Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out.

I like the idea that writing is a progression — from the starting point to the next thing, then to the next. Even though you’re writing nonfiction you’re still writing a story, and as the writer you get to decide how the story will go.

Since my background is in technical writing, I find myself wanting to argue that the “one criterion” shouldn’t be what interests me but should be what interests my reader. Yet I think I understand what McPhee is saying: As the one who’s doing the informing, I’m responsible for choosing what my reader will need or want. My reader can’t know, and I’m shirking my duty if I force them to choose the story.

I think this is true even in an “every page is page one” environment where my reader chooses what content to read, and in what order. Within each chunk of content — each topic — I still have to provide the narrative that will lead my reader to what they need.

To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape…a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images — such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost.

Get lost. In the end it’s about the reader. The writer should become invisible. I’m in complete accord with this: In fact I consider it to be the prime directive of technical writing.

What do you think? Leave a comment. Tell me if you enjoyed McPhee’s piece, and what you think of his ideas on brevity and on connecting with the reader.

Story and data: yin and yang

I saw a story without any data. It was like a milkshake without any flavor.

First, some background: Mark Baker recently wrote a piece in which he rightly derided the DIKW (data, information, knowledge, wisdom) pyramid as a model for communication. He pointed out that pure data, without a story to give it context, is meaningless.

Sea turtleThen he set out to replace the pyramid with a different model: a stack of turtles, each one riding on the back of the one below it. The stack, in Mark’s words, “is stories at the bottom, in the middle, and at the top. It is stories, like turtles, all the way down.”

That sounded good to me. Then I saw a story without any data. Continue reading

New technologies and their stories

Machines that tell stories. What potential do they hold — both commercially and otherwise? How might they affect the professions of journalism and technical communication?

Robot reading a book

Will “robots” soon write stories and then read them to us? (Image source: Matanya Horowitz)

I came upon a fascinating article this week, titled New technologies and their stories. The article’s contents were curated by design researcher Hanna Zoon at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

I greatly enjoyed the article, despite a couple of hindrances in reading it. First, Zoon often refers to herself in the third person. Second, the article is in German. (My rusty high-school German, buttressed by Google Translate, rode to the rescue.)

Zoon starts by saying “Computers can do different things than people.” Then she describes some of those things.
Continue reading

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? Continue reading