How to tell a story

Say what? How social media platforms affect what you say ... and how you say it.

"Save it for the judge, kid."

"Save it for the judge, kid."

You already know that your audience influences what you say and how you say it when you’re telling a story. (That googly-eyed baby talk that entertains your girlfriend will get you tazed if you use it on a cop.)

But did you know that where you tell your story is just as important as whom* you’re telling it to?** Think about how the following venues affect what you say and how you say it:

VENUE: Your favorite noisy pub

APPROACH: Loud, off-color comments that you practically spit in your friend’s ear.

VENUE: Sunday Mass

APPROACH: Fidgety whispering about how bored you are, accompanied by crude illustrations drawn with those bowling-alley pencils on the back of the church bulletin.

VENUE: Elevator

APPROACH: Vapid comments about the weather directed to the top of your shoes.

VENUE: Men’s room

APPROACH: There is no approach. The first rule of “Men’s Room” is you DO NOT talk in the men’s room.

The same is true with social media venues. You wouldn’t post a video of a shark-cat riding a Roomba on LinkedIn would you? Of course not. Different venues require different approaches.

To help you navigate the rocky waters of social-media etiquette, the good folks at My Clever Agency created an infographic to help you “Create The Perfect Pinterest, Google+, Facebook & Twitter posts.”***

Check it out.

*Full disclosure: I don’t often use “whom,” even when I know I should. Just as I don’t say, “It is I,” when asked “who is it?” But my sister-in-law occasionally reads these posts, and she’s a stickler for proper grammar, so I figured I’d go all highfalutin for her this one time.

**But don't come after me for ending a sentence with a preposition.

***Relax. It's a quote. They capitalize, I capitalize.

Television. AmIright??

Let your TV be your guide. “I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts.” —      Orson Welles

“If television's a babysitter, the Internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.” —Dorothy Gambrell, Cat and Girl Volume I

“The difference between TV and the internet was how far you sat from the screen. TV was an 8 foot activity, and you were a consumer. The internet was a 16 inch activity, and you participated.” —Seth Godin

Want to know the 33 things your television can teach you about storytelling in the Interactive Age? It's all in here.

Motivational Tweaking: Why motive matters when telling your story

"Why are you tryin' to harsh my mellow, bra? The dude was a lawyer! From New Jersey!!" You can commit treason, rob a corporation of billions in potential revenue, and even try to beat a man to death with a hatchet and the public will still love you … as long as they think your motives are pure—or pure as they define it. But God help you if the public thinks you misled them. Consider:

Caleb “Kai” McGillvary became an Internet celebrity after he stopped a crazed maniac from killing some guy by smashing a hatchet into his skull. (“Smash, smash, suh-MASH,” as Kai recalled it.) But when he was arrested and charged with beating a New Jersey lawyer—this time to death—the fickle public quickly stopped the clock on Kai's 15 minutes of fame.

When Edward Snowden figuratively outed ol’ Uncle Sam as a crazed creeper who had naked pictures of every one of us hidden in his underwear drawer, many hailed him as a hero and a patriot. Ironically, his halo lost its shine when he revealed his egomaniacal messiah complex with such quotes as, “I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”

And now comes the fall of the evad3rs, a merry band of hackers who gained Robin Hood-like cult status last January when they released a “jailbreak” code that allowed iPhone and iPad owners to override Apple’s many security features and buy apps somewhere other than Apple’s iTunes store.

But the Huzzahs! turned into “hand me that pitchfork” last month when people downloaded evad3rs’ latest jailbreak and found that it automatically uploaded a Chinese app store onto their devices. Worse still, this digital Walmart known only as Taig sold pirated software. The fact that this auto-upload only happened on devices preset with the Chinese language did nothing to calm the enraged mob.

Rumors that Taig paid evad3rs to be bundled into their hackware forced the assiduously low-profile hackers to come up out of their mom’s basement and post not one, but two strikingly unconvincing letters explaining how they had gotten themselves into this mess.

Now consider Ducks Unlimited. The sportsmen’s group boasts of being “the world's leader in wetlands and waterfowl conservation,” which is true. And, as a result, “Ducks Unlimited does more than any other organization to put ducks in the sky,” which is also true. But they also shoot more ducks out of the sky than any other organization.

There are relatively few organizations that are going to publicly support an organization dedicated to blasting birds out of the sky. But a number of groups—from environmental activists to bird-watching societies—find the quest to preserve wetlands and waterfowl appealing and worthy of support.

So what can we learn from all this? It’s fine to have a self-serving motive tucked just behind your public-facing motive as long as it is palatable to the public … and you’re candid about it.


Don't forget to pick up some de-odious! Why "Sure Unscented" is worth more than $15,000 to your story

"I don't care all the DC council members do it! You don't work for the DC Council, do you?"

Bob? Bob! ... Robert Francis McDonnell get down here this instant!

I was just informed that you took some money out of my wallet to buy toiletries—deodorant, sunscreen, and a … um … a digestive system cleanse. Is this true, Bob? Answer me.

You disappoint me, son.

Oh, you’re darn tootin’ you’ll pay me back, but it’s not about the money, Robert. Heck, we’re only talking about a few dollars. The bigger issues are trust and integrity.

For the last three years, we let you live here rent free. You could take the car whenever you wanted and we—not you—we filled it up when you left the tank empty. We fed you three squares a day, and never complained when you and your buddies raided the fridge after a night of partying. You didn’t even have to do chores because we hired an entire cleaning crew to clean up after you.

All we ever asked is that you pay for your own sundries and incidentals. But apparently, that was just too much for you to manage.

I don’t know, Bob. Maybe it’s our fault. Maybe we’ve been too lenient with all you little governors. Looking back I probably should have stepped in when Jonnie Williams gave you that $15,000 check to cover the catering at Cailin’s wedding. But, darn it all, that check put such a big smile on your face I just couldn’t tell you that your excuse for taking it was flimsier than an Ikea bookshelf.

Bob, did I ever tell you about the time that I ran out of deodorant? I was getting ready for an important meeting and I was running late. Yeah, again. Anyway, when I popped the cap off the deodorant, the last little clump of Sure Unscented fell right into the sink. I tried to scrape up as much as I could, but there was only enough to barely cover my left arm pit. And the only other deodorant in the house was some very sweet strawberry roll-on that my girls were wearing back in their middle-school days.

Long story short, when I put in my contact lenses, I darn near fried my corneas because I hadn’t quite washed all of that deodorant off of my fingers. So by the time I got to my meeting with ol’ man Digby, my eyes were red, my pits were stained, and I smelled like an eighth-grade girl after volley ball practice.

And you want to know the worst part, Bob? I was just at the Rite Aid the day before but I forgot to pick up deodorant. So you see, I really can relate to buying deodorant.

And that's the lesson for you, Bob. Nobody really understands—or much cares—about your crazy transportation plans, or whether you knew that taking Jonnie’s check was probably illegal. The common man just doesn’t relate to big numbers and abstract concepts. But when you’re talking deodorant and bowel cleansers, well son, you’ve got their full attention.

So when you do tell a story, make every effort to speak of the little things that you think your audience can relate to. Oh, and use concrete words as often as possible. If you do, you’ll find that people will really enjoy listening to—and retelling—your stories.

Now go put your jeans on, son. You’ve got some chores to do today!

Seven things you can do today to improve your writing

"I can't remember the seventh one either. Isn't that weird?" 1. Strip down to your BVDs. To everybody but your mother, your organization is just another unknown guitar player on the Venice Beach boardwalk, a Robert John Burck if you will.

Who? Exactly.

Burck was a “piss-poor, no-good” guitar-playing model who couldn’t busk enough change on a good day to buy a venti Frappuccino–until he got naked. Now, Burck—aka The Naked Cowboy—is a fixture in Times Square who has made a fortune with his trademarked Naked Cowboy franchise. Lesson: Find that one feature that separates you from the pack, and ride it till you shred the tires.

2. Hunt down and kill clichés. The cliché is a cunning quarry. It blends in with your creative copy, waiting silently for your reader to stumble upon it and then BAM! It bores them to tears. So be …

Dear God! Nobody move. There’s a cliché right behind us. Don’t panic. Just reach deep into your brain and pull out some creativity. No, the right side, you fool! Dig deeper! I know it’s in there. Good. Now, let’s pray to God this works.

… for your reader to stumble upon it and then BAM! It leaps straight into her brain, devouring any interest she may have had in reading further. So be vigilant. The story you save may be your own.

3. Help people feel big numbers. Employing the “to-the-moon-and-back” gimmick to explain a big number is like using Ken and Barbie dolls to demonstrate a passionate kiss. If you must drop a big number into your copy, drop it on the audience’s feet. Need to show them a trillion? Start with something they can grasp, like a second. If one million seconds equals 11-and-a-half days, how long is a billion seconds? 32 years. Which means a trillion seconds is 32,000 years. Brain cramp, right? That’s how you leave a mark with a number.

4. Sing your story. A well written story is a song. Whether it flows lyrically or marches forward with a staccato beat, a good story has a tempo that augments the message and enhances the reader’s experience. And it’s surprisingly easy to do. As you edit, read your copy out loud. If you don’t notice a natural cadence to the narration, try culling a few syllables—through word choice or word chopping—to make your copy more melodic.

5. Don't forget to floss your copy. Even the best copy can get gummed up with jargon, acronyms, and legalese. To prevent unsightly copy-stain buildup, scour your copy vigorously. And be extra vigilant with the phrase “wide variety.” If you ever find it in your copy, hit “ctrl A” then “ctrl x.” That should clear up the problem right away.

6. Hit on one member of your audience. You wouldn’t try to hook up with every person at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, would you? Of course not. You want to focus all that charisma into a single charm-laser so you have a better chance of not going home alone. Same with writing. Envision who you are writing for—in detail—then hit that person with all the Cyrano you can muster.

7. Imagine that your new friend has to go to the bathroom. Really bad. Nobody ever complained about a speech being too short. The same goes for just about everything else you write. If you spend as much energy compressing your word count as you do finding fun phrases, you will have a more appreciative—and less squirmy—audience.


West Side Storycide

"The whole time? I was wearing this rug the whole time and I didn't know it? Man, I didn't see that coming." Judging from the cards and letters we’ve received this week (Box 3-5-0, Boston Mass, 0hh-2-1-3-foour), you guys want more details on how to end your own nonfiction stories. Life doesn’t tie up loose ends Ellery Queen-style. No, that’s your job. But we’re going to help you mugs with a new series we call “assisted storycide.”

When inspiration shakes us by the lapels, we’ll post a case story featuring a specific type of ending—happy, sad, surprise, Phillips head, whatever—and then offer advice based on that story. Today’s lesson: “Leave them laughing.”

There’s nothing funny about people jumping in front of trains to end their tormented lives … usually. So when you play suicide for laughs, you should employ a somber tone. We opted for film noir for this story ...

Strangeness on a Train

Megan and I were on the 7 a.m. Acela bound for New York when the engineer stomped on the brakes like they owed him money. We were miles from the next station ... and just inches away from caboose-ing the 6:30 a.m. Northeast Regional.

From my window, I could see dozens of young commuters stepping off the train, sporting hand-tailored Zegnas and thousand-mile stares. I had to chuckle as these apprentices of the universe shuffled toward us, squinting like mole people in the bright sunlight. It looked like career day at Zombie U.

Minutes later, the dazed passengers from that train—there were over 100 of them—crammed into ours. We were packed tighter than a Japanese subway car, but our new guests stayed mum. Then this short gal with a blond pageboy starts sobbing hysterically about some mooch who mistimed his suicide leap. He got the job done but left a grisly vista for those seated on the left.

With the seal busted, some know-it-all started gabbing about the “protocol for such situations,” which included yellow-vested conductors barking through bull horns, a neatly choreographed “disembarkation” routine, and oddly enough, the distribution of free snack packs. The things you learn on the way to the Big City.

On the Acela back to DC that evening, we met a surprising number of people who had started their day on the Kevorkian Express. A productive day in the city and a few cold ones had knocked the zombie out of them and loosened the screws at the back of their tongues. They were dishing the gruesome details of the morning’s entertainment, and we were lapping it up with ladles.

But just as they were getting to the good part, there was crash that would have startled Buddy Rich and the train made an unscheduled jump on the tracks. Rather than die down, the crash got louder as it rumbled from the cow-catcher to the middle of the car behind us. I was hoping that the crackling thunder below us was a mangled Pathmark shopping cart, but the veterans among us knew better—another Choo Choo Charlie had taken the A train to the Promised Land.

As the train came to a stop, everyone froze. It was as quiet as a speakeasy just before the doors get kicked in. Then, before the conductor could grab his bull horn, two of the Ghost Train frequent flyers looked at each other and shouted, “Free Snack Packs!!”

And they were right.


The lessons:

“Begin with the end in mind.” Any good story goes through unexpected permutations as it’s being developed, which is a natural and good thing. But one thing should remain constant – the ending. As Yogi Berra wisely said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”

Foreshadowing – It’s important to offer smalls references in the body of the story to the element(s) that are crucial to the end—the “free snack packs,” in this case.

Careful foreshadowing – It’s also risky. The foreshadowing has to be done in a way that does not blow the joke. In this case, we said “free snack packs” twice. But if we had gotten just a twinkle more than a wistful smile from our audience at the first mention of the goodies, the ending would have been shot.

Brevity is the soul of wit – The two most important elements of any story are the beginning and the end. The closer together you put these two critical elements, the better your story will be. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Start as close to the end as possible.”

When you’re done, you’re done. Denouements are for novelists and overachievers. When you made your point, stop talking.

Stay stoic, my friend. If the story you’re telling gets the laughs you expect (or any that you’re not expecting), do not laugh. Or, as Mark Twain advised, “The teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”

They don’t call it the climax for nothing: How to satisfy your audience with a powerful ending

"Stop your worrying. I talked to David Chase and he said there is no chance in hell that he would end the show tha--" As with rock concerts, fireworks displays, and full-body massages, you can’t have a great story without a great ending--or grand finale as the French would say, which oddly enough means “1,000 curtain-rod end-pieces” (origin unknown).

Think of the climax as your gift to the audience for all they've endured to get to the end of the story—whether plowing through page after page of Stephen King’s description of the hedge maze in The Shining, or simply maintaining your expectant smile and raised eyebrows as your roommate tells you anew about last night’s date.

They’ve done their part, so you’ve got to do yours. But how? Here are two resources that should prove helpful.

The first is a well-thought-out tutorial by Ylva Publishing. The post, entitled “Satisfying endings,” skillfully guides the reader from the climax—“the highest point of tension and action,” to the denouement, another French word which, roughly translated, means, “Thanks. I’ll call you.”

It’s worth a read … and maybe even a cigarette.

But the most instructive tutorial on the importance of a good ending is found here—a video of the 2010 Disclosure Conference at the National Press Club. It’s long (an hour and change), but the stories are riveting. And the endings are even better.

I can state with certainty that you will never encounter worse endings than these, which is amazing because these stories are the eye-witness accounts of aliens hovering over nuclear missile silos and deactivating the nukes, and they're being told by the former Air Force officers who commanded those missile silos!

In their defense, these guys were probably as surprised that they were speaking at a national news briefing as they were about their close encounters with aliens. And possibly even more frightened by it. But even cutting them that slack, these are without a doubt the most horrendous endings on some of the most amazing stories of all time.

Take the time to watch video. Study each ending closely. And then do the opposite when it's your turn to tell a story.

Short-Attention Span Theatrics

"Curious George? Really, that's what you want? What are you, like, four years old or something?" When I was 12, my father took the four of us kids to a book store near the University of Michigan, presumably so he could check that box on his “Things I must do with the kids so I can tell people I did it” list.

Michael, 13, who would someday become a doctor, chose Grey’s Anatomy. Mary Beth, almost 11—who devoured books like the “Planet Killer” on Star Trek devoured planets (season 2, episode 6)—found and hugged a copy of Gone with the Wind. Marnie, picked Stuart Little. She had no intention of reading it, but even at eight she knew that by spiffing up Dad’s I-bought-all-my-kids-books story she would take the lead in the perpetual race for his affection.

But I didn’t want a book.

“You're getting a book.”

“I don’t want a book. Honest.”

“John, we’re not leaving this store until ... you … select … a  book.”

Today, a kid who disliked reading as much as I did would be screened for dyslexia and ADD. But back then the diagnosis was simply “he’s not a reader.” I was good at reading people, though, and I knew this book drive was less about my story-reading pleasure and more about Dad’s story-telling pleasure. He couldn’t check that box if I didn’t buy a book.

Out of frustration (and maybe a little spite), I chose The Big Book of Jokes and Riddles “recommended for kids from six to 99!” Hell, I fit the bill. And the book was made for me—it had lots of pictures, acres of white space, and short entries. The longest joke didn’t top 400 characters.

“That's really the book you want?”


Three seconds of his withering death stare and then … checkmate. I win.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a pioneer in the short-attention-span movement that would sweep the globe by the time my own kids were old enough to play me as well as I played my dad.

That movement declared victory this week when Yahoo! paid a teenager $30 million for an app called Summly which shrinks news articles down to 400-character summaries, turning everyone’s phone into The Big E-Book of News and Commentary.

In his press statement announcing the deal (which, I feel compelled to point out, ran far longer than 400 characters), 17-year-old inventor Nick D'Aloisio said,  “Our vision is to simplify how we get information.”

Simplify? Really? Have you ever thumbed through yards of Dewey Decimal drawers in search of the alpha-numeric code that would lead you to a distant bookshelf where the book you were looking for used to be hidden before it was checked out by someone else? Ever spent an evening squinting at news articles on microfiche desperate to finish your homework before the library closed? Ever try to write a term paper using the Encyclopedia Britannica as your Internet?

I didn’t think so.

The only way it could get easier to get information today is if it were injected straight into our brain ports Matrix style.

As a storyteller, it's important for you to understand how your audience consumes information. And these days, it's in tiny, flashy, bites. Folks aren't ordering Chateaubriand with Sauce Bernaise anymore. They want Pop Rocks and a large Coke--to go.

So give it to them. Spend some time crafting a compelling lede to hook them. Then edit your copy until it squeaks to keep them on the line. Then edit it again. And once you've made your point, stop writing.


Ground control's a major yawn.

"Perhaps you should try using active verbs." If you’ve got bad news to report and you don’t want the story to get legs, put it out on a Friday afternoon.

But if your story absolutely, positively should never see the light of day, give it to NASA’s PR department. These communication dementors could suck the soul out of any tale--from the diapered-astronaut-attempted-murder caper to the Russian meteor brushback pitch.

NASA held a news conference this week to tell the world that the Rover found evidence that Mars could have supported life eons ago—that there is a very real possibility that life once existed on freakin’ Mars!

Here’s how heralded this extraordinary news: “Wow! Ancient Mars Could Have Supported Primitive Life, NASA Says”

Here’s NASA’s headline: “NASA Rover Finds Conditions Once Suited for Ancient Life on Mars”

We’re not suggesting that NASA has to go full-Onion on us (though that would be pretty cool). But after flying through space for eight-and-a-half months and spending more than $2.5 billion of our Christmas Club savings on gas, snacks and trinkets that you don't need and you're just going to lose, we thought you might be a little more excited about finding what you went up there looking for.

Ah well. Once again, it's time for us to profit from another flack’s mistake.

NASA’s PR department, thinking with their slide rules again, presented this Mars-shattering news without the slightest thought of their audience which, as we've learned by now, is a Bozo no-no. Your audience--and their individual and collective reactions--must color your story and how you tell it. Every word, every phrase, every gesture.

To paraphrase Bananarama, “It ain’t what you say it’s the way that you say it.”

That's what gets results.