Monthly Archives: June 2019

Five characters

Characters: Who Inhabits Your Story?

Today’s post is about the characters who inhabit our stories.  How do we identify and manage them?  The next post shall be about character development.

The following story is based on a real story, with a lot of detail changes!

I was utterly devastated by the death of my wife and concealed my grief by going into the office as if nothing had happened.  The “crying man, that everyone calls laughing boy”.  My grief expressed itself despite my best efforts.  My decisions were off and my staff saw it.  They didn’t know why.

At first, they coped with my contradictory directions in their own way.  Some did as they were told and sulked when I told them off for not doing what I meant to ask them.  Others did their own thing, exercised their own judgement and argued when I told them off for not doing what I said.  Some feared me and looked for new jobs, other planned to oust me from my post by appealing to senior management.

It was only when my PA opened a bereavement card, sent to the office by a business acquaintance who did not have my home address that the staff found out the truth.  Now they understood what was going on, they came up with a plan to get their old boss back.

Types of Character

Many business-owners’ stories lack characters.  Where they focus on the owner’s life story, it feels as if they sail through life with little contact with other people.

Sometimes the story includes many undifferentiated names, with little to help us follow where they enter, take part and depart the story.  Moira, Annie and Helen may have all been great friends but why should I care about them?  Maybe one of them accompanied you on some enterprise – but do I really need to know?  The story may work better if you are unaccompanied, despite what happened in real life.

Alternatively, there are no characters apart from the protagonist.  Parents, brothers and sisters, wives and children are mentioned in passing but have little traction in the story.

A Few Basic Characters

Many people play various roles in your story.  Your father may have been supportive mostly but what about that time he stood in your way?  Is he hero or villain? 

You don’t need all these in every story but when someone appears, ask what role they play.  If none, why mention them?

  • Dependents –  these are people who you fight for or should fight for.  Your family – aged parents, spouse and children.  Other dependents may be employees.  Your decisions mean kept or lost livelihoods.  Whoever they are, give them agency.  I expect you work to provide for your family.  But what say do they have?  Do they actively help or stand in your way?  Are there times of conflict with them?
  • Companions – these people strive alongside you.  They are on your side but have their own agency and motivation, strengths and weaknesses.  At heart they are allies, except when your story is about betrayal.
  • Helpers or Guides – these people support you but do not work alongside you.  They may be formal coaches or consultants, who bring new ideas to your story.  Or informal, in fairy tales they can be elders or young children.
  • Villains – these people bring tension to your story.  They stand in your way and thwart your ambitions.  They are not necessarily bad people.  Most villains believe sincerely they do right and you are the villain!  If you need to spice up your story, introduce a villain.

The Perils of the Short Story

Most stories used in a business are short.  Short in comparison with a novel, where there is ample space to develop character. 

In a story with clear character development, the protagonist and others, change as a result of the story.  The challenge is to show change to the protagonist by the end of the story.

So, flag up the problem at the start.  What problem?  You may define the problem as the need to make profit, some threat to a business, a customer in trouble.  These are all predictable issues.  The interesting question is why the protagonist is not able to solve their problem.  They have a character flaw and we need to see them change as they solve the problem.

For example, a business owner faced by a major threat to their business.  She’s a self-made woman and rejects assistance.  She got to where she is today under her own steam.  As the story develops, she finds she cannot solve this problem on her own.  She must trust her employees, who between them resolve the issue.  Now the owner has learned teamwork and she grows her business further.

But look closely at that outline.  This story is potentially huge.  Not only do we get to know the protagonist and see the change in her attitude, we need to know her employees.  Describing how the contribution each makes is discovered, accepted by the protagonist and how each person is accepted by the team could easily run to several hundred pages! 

Here’s the challenge.  You have a 10 minute talk to tell this story and do justice to the business owner and her team.  A skilled storyteller can tell the same story at length or down to a minute or so. 

When You Are the Protagonist

It is worth experimenting with making someone else the protagonist in your story.  It makes sense to place yourself at the centre of the story but there are advantages to putting someone else at the centre.

The hero of any story is by definition flawed.  This may be hard to accept.  “Everyone is valued and no-one is too blameworthy”,  may be true but it makes for dull storytelling.  The question is, do you know your own flaws?  Can you see what really changed when you made that breakthrough?  Perhaps you see change in some other character who took part?

Look at the story from that character’s point of view and understand their motivation.  This means you become more sympathetic to their point of view, whatever role they played.  Can you see why the villain believed they were doing the right thing? 

As you empathise with other players, you see your behaviour in a new light.  You see their point of view and know the conflict from a new perspective.  You say: “looking back, I see I behaved as a complete …”.  You point to the person you were and show how everyone else stepped around you to do the right thing. 

The made up story at the head of this post, shows the problem from the perspective of those around the protagonist.  How do we handle development of the character at the core of that story?  I’ll follow up that question next time. 

red rose

How to Use Detail in Storytelling

I’m going to describe a pivotal scene from an anime, called “After the Rain”.  It is about the relationship between a man in his 40s and a 17 year old girl.  This story is about awkwardness and it is a tender description about how they both rebuild their lives, after they lost track of their dreams.  He’s the manager of a restaurant and she is a waitress. This story includes several excellent examples of judicious use of detail in storytelling.

Rain is a recurring motif and each episode title is rain related. Umbrellas are a recurring motif, one example of the use of detail to create a mood.

In a pivotal scene, in the back office at the restaurant, they have visited a bookstall at a market.  The man once wanted to be a writer and the owner of the stall was an old acquaintance.  The girl purchased a book.  When she examines it, a bookmark falls out.  She asks if she should return it.  He replies, no it’s yours.  They examine it and it has a design of leaves.  The man notices if you hold it to the light there is a faint impression of a swift.  Probably foil has worn away. 

This leads to the man explaining there was a nest of swifts outside the office a few years ago.  He takes her outside to see where it was.  The conversation turns to the birds’ flying away to freedom. 

Following this they both move on and return to their dreams.  He takes up writing again and she regains confidence to run again, following a serious accident that had prevented her from running.

When to Use Detail

There are two possible mistakes when it comes to detail: too much and too little.

The best way to conjure a world in the minds of your audience, is to allow them to fill in the detail.  Visualise a kitchen.  You don’t need me to tell you to include a cooker and a fridge.  Probably, you start with a familiar kitchen, maybe your own and make adjustments as the story develops. 

Take great care over adjectives.  Mostly you don’t need them!  You don’t need to tell your audience the kitchen has magnolia walls, unless the colour of the walls is important to the story.  That’s the point, use adjectives to flesh out important detail.  The example at the start of this post, shows how detail moves the story forwards. 

Many personal stories lack detail.  We’ve all heard the advice, “show, not tell”.  Detail of objects packs an emotional punch, evoking emotion, place and time.  One person had a story about recovery from depression.  She would spend all day in bed.  I asked her to describe the bed.  The bed tells us what it’s like to be depressed, far more than a description of feelings. Detail in storytelling is immensely powerful.

The Power of Detail in Storytelling

The story at the start of this post, illustrates the power of detail.  There is the book, the bookmark that requires a lot of description and then the remains of the nest.  Each of these points, with increasing power, towards the path each protagonist must take.  And yet none of these objects, in themselves mean anything. 

It is easy to focus on the main character, especially if it is you but if you truly know your story, you can bring the world you inhabit alive.

A story I heard recently was about a man who had something stuck in his throat.  The story is about being unable to communicate, for more than one reason.  Eventually, the object is removed and turns out to be a large, green bayleaf.  How do I know it was large and green?  Because that is how the storyteller described it.  We don’t know for most of the story what it is, and until it appears we don’t know we want to know!  The bayleaf is captured because the man finds his voice.  Until that moment, we all assume it was fishbone because he was eating fish soup.

It’s not that there is anything wrong with adjectives.  The point is they are immensely powerful and should be used sparingly.

Detail and Emotion

We focus on relevant detail and suddenly the story pivots around us because we invest emotion in the object.  We don’t need to say how the protagonists felt, we show it through the object. 

I bought a deep red rose for my beloved.  In the ensuing row, it fell to the floor and she trod on it, it left a red stain on the carpet.  Do you see how you use imagery to express emotion?  How do you think this relationship develops?  We sometimes talk about blood on the floor, following a row.  It doesn’t look good. 

You could use this image as the final scene or just as easily as a pivotal moment, when they both saw – what?  Detail in storytelling has emotional heft but it is pliable, you can take it in many directions.  If this story has a happy ending, this scene serves to build tension. 

But note, the significance of the red rose depends on the character of the two protagonists. Detail in storytelling depends upon the character of the protagnists, who drive our stories and so we’ll look at that topic next time.

A mangle

Stories of Past and Present

Mostly stories told by business people take place in the past. Evoking the past and linking it to the present can be tricky. How do we tell stories of past and present? Here is a part of my personal story.

As a child, I loved biology.  As far back as I remember, I wanted to be a zoo keeper.  I had elaborate plans for cleaning a lion’s cage without being eaten!  Later, I wanted to be a vet and so I needed Biology.  I really enjoyed the subject. As I entered second year of secondary school, the school announced my brilliant exam results meant I had the honour of dropping Biology for Latin. 

I was really frustrated.  Even though Biology meant more sport (the subject I loathed most) because it covered fewer periods than Latin, I still wanted Biology.  My parents discussed the matter with the school.  Fortunately, we had streaming and so it was not too difficult to accommodate my wishes.  I was always top in Biology and went on to study it at University. 

So, how did I end up as a community development worker and lately, self employed as a marketing coach?

Time and Plotting

In an earlier post I wrote about plotting stories.  Most of what I covered relates to time.  I covered chronology, tense, starting and finishing.  In this post, I revisit this from the perspective of conveying passage of time.

All stories take place in the past, apart from science fiction and fantasy.  For the near past, you might use artificial present, eg “I’m walking down the corridor …”  Clearly, you’re not walking down a corridor but people are used to the convention.  It conveys a sense of near past. 

You can use this convention for more distant past.  What if your walk took place 30 years ago?  There are a few things to consider.  First, you anchor the story 30 years ago – the present in your story is long ago.  This doesn’t matter, unless you intend to link events to an incident in the near past.  You can do this but the danger is you’ll confuse your audience. 

You could start in the near past and travel back, thus: “Walking down the corridor to this venue today, I remembered walking down another corridor 30 years ago.”  You may need to say what triggered the memory and explain what the memory was but you establish a link between the two time periods.  This is probably better than beginning 30 years ago and then bringing the story into the near past: “… which is why I remembered this incident as I walked here today.”  It may be a problem if the link between past and present happens late in the story.

Evoking the Past

The second thing to consider is if your artificial present is 30 years ago, how do you establish the time period?  You could try: “I’m walking down a corridor, 30 years ago”, a bit lame but OK where you recount an incident from the past that could have happened yesterday.  What you don’t want is a question from the audience like: “Why didn’t you use your mobile phone?”  “Because 30 years ago, they hadn’t been invented …”  sounds really lame and shows your story jarred for at least one person in the audience. 

The problem is, mentioning the date can break the story: “It was 30 years ago …”.  So, how about mentioning a contemporary event?  It should be something most people recognise.  The fall of the Berlin wall, for example.  Most people have a vague idea it was some time ago.  “At the time, Abba was in the charts and I was humming one of their greatest hits”, sets the scene, probably in the seventies. 

Or refer to objects that we no longer use.  “The phone rang and we scrambled to pick up the receiver”, implies before mobile phones.  “Grandma was folding bed sheets and putting them through the mangle”, implies an earlier time and may invoke a nostalgic response.  Remember though, some people might not know what a mangle is!

Change and Transformation

Another possibility is evolution.  I recently heard a story about the cars the storyteller had owned.  The story spanned about 30 years and the stories evoked the past, more so if you know the models of car. 

This brings us to an important point.  Stories are about change and changes happen through time.  The situation at the end of a story, should be different to the start.  Usually, a character or characters have a goal and the story is about how they reached it (or didn’t) and perhaps the consequences of success or failure.

There are several ways to convey change.  Tell a story that begins at the beginning and builds tension because we don’t know how it pans out.  Did the storyteller win the heart of the love of their life?  Did the divorce happen and what were the consequences?

Alternatively, begin with the present state and show how you got there.  “It was my fault the police came to arrest me.”  Now backtrack and explain why they arrested you.  Then take the story forward, presumably you’re not arrested now!  This may be the best approach, if your story includes a near death experience.  The fact you’re telling the story is a massive spoiler!

Childhood Aspirations

Great storytelling hinges on the goals of characters.  Start with someone, you or your customer, with a goal.  Show how they attained it.  This shows passage through time but it is likely contemporary and took a few weeks or months to pan out.

A special case is where the protagonist conceived their goal early in life.  Such a story develops into a dialogue with your younger self.  The trick is to tell the story from the child’s perspective.  You know a lot of stuff now, you didn’t know as a child.  What did you know and how did you perceive things then?  What changed and how did it change?

Audiences root for a child.  You overcame obstacles and learned stuff on the way.  Don’t attribute contemporary insights to the child, let them make mistakes and celebrate successes. 

We’ll return to these themes in later posts.  Before we do that, let’s pause and consider the use of detail in storytelling.

Upright piano

Setting the Scene for Your Story

This is the start of a story about a massive altercation within a family. I have adapted it from someone else’s story to illustrate setting the scene for your story. What do you need to include to plot your story?

A Sunday Lunch Spoiled.

There we were, four of us, preparing Sunday lunch.  Grandma was in charge.  We were in her kitchen, she’d lived there for 50 years and nothing much had changed in that time.  I was 5 years old and knelt on a stool, shelling peas into a bowl on the central kitchen table.  Mum was putting Yorkshire Puddings in the ancient gas oven, while little Timmy was making a racket on Grandma’s piano.

A Sense of Place

Many stories lack a sense of place.  Whatever goes on in the story may be interesting but if it is not clear where it is happening, the audience is disorientated. 

Mostly, business people don’t tell science fiction or fantasy stories and so we assume whatever’s happening is on earth!  However, sometimes it’s hard to tell.  You don’t have to spell out every detail.  If you begin the story with “Once upon a time”, the chances are we are entering a fairy tale world.  “Ancient Persia” is enough for most people to imagine somewhere a long time ago and on the other side of the world.

If this is a realistic story, it helps to know roughly what part of the world we’re in.  There doesn’t need to be a lot of detail.  If you say it takes place in Sheffield, even people who have never been there imagine something.  However, it may not be that important.  For example, a story that takes place at a conference.  Perhaps we don’t need to know where the conference centre is and a description of the corporate space may be enough. 

It may be more important to describe a smaller space.  A home, a school or church, a park or shopping centre.  These details offer a sense of where the activity of the story takes place.  Name the city or county, if you think it relevant.

You don’t need to mention the place at the beginning of the story.  For example, if the story takes place on a spaceship, the reveal might work towards the end. 

Imaginative Space

The next point is how much detail to reveal about the setting for the story.  “There we were, four of us, preparing Sunday lunch.”  Most people imagine a kitchen with four people in it.  We don’t know much about the kitchen so far.  “Grandma was in charge.  We were in her kitchen, she’d lived there for 50 years and nothing much had changed in that time.”  We don’t know what date the story is set in but clearly we have an old-fashioned kitchen here.  “I was 5 years old and knelt on a stool, shelling peas into a bowl on the central kitchen table.”  “Mum was putting Yorkshire Puddings in the ancient gas oven, while little Timmy was making a racket on Grandma’s piano.” 

Do you see as I add sentences, we get a picture of the people and of the space they occupy?  Let’s focus on the piano.  When the setting was first mentioned, you would have imagined a generic kitchen and certainly not one with a piano!    The piano has a point.  There’s no point in mentioning the piano in the kitchen, if it is never mentioned again.  When something happens involving the piano, we need to know it is there.  The central table may be important too, as a place for the narrator and Timmy to hide. 

The point is you don’t have to describe every detail but you do need to mention important stuff.  A piano in the kitchen is odd, so you would not mention it if it had no role in the story.  It doesn’t much matter what era the story is set in and the exact layout of the kitchen.  Leave that to the audience’s imagination.

Setting the Scene

Every story is a summary.  Trust your audience to imagine something.  They adjust their vision.  It’s not too difficult to incorporate a piano into a kitchen in your imagination.  Indeed, a microwave might be more incongruous! 

You don’t need to say a lot.  It’s Christmas and someone sets a table for their partner to enjoy a quiet meal together.  This might be the scene of a colossal row but you just need enough for the audience to imagine table decorations, the starched table cloth and crackers. 

Where there is something important to the plot, mention it in passing and try to hide its significance.  It’s often effective if the audience forgets something until you mention it again.  Handled deftly, Timmy on the piano might just seem to be a bit of scene setting.  It’s a family scene.  You have to mention it before the action of the story begins because otherwise, it’ll seem really odd that there happens to be a piano in the kitchen.

Depending on what happens, the bowl of peas might be consumed by 2 children under the table as they watch the ensuing row.  The Yorkshire puddings might be forgotten and burned.  They don’t have to be, some of it is scene setting.  Leave the audience to guess what is significant.

This story could take place any time over the last 50 years.  It doesn’t much matter when it is set.  But time, like space, is important.  So, next time we’ll think about past and present in storytelling.

tea and poetry, leisure time

How Email Marketing Assists Time Management

Sarah feels guilty because she took a day off this week!  She says it’s not rational.  Her business isn’t harmed and she needs an occasional change of scene.  But why does Sarah feel as if she’s done something wrong when she takes a day off?  She wonders why time management always seems difficult.

Business or Pleasure?

Before we consider how email marketing saves time, ask: why do we want to save time?  Saving time has two purposes: it creates more time for your business or else more time for life! 

Time for Business

Many business owners are run off their feet, trying to meet deadlines and implement a growing to-do list.  Business can become all-consuming.  If you seek more time to apply to your business, you need time management.  There are many ways to save time and they are not restricted to email marketing.  Indeed, without a global time management strategy, time you save through email marketing is swallowed by everything else you do. 

Consider whether you can make significant gains through systematic time management or whether your business is naturally growing and you need to build capacity to meet demands of a growing market.

Time for Life

Many people go into business because they are free spirits, who don’t want to be constrained by the 9-5 routine.  It’s not impossible your business will become more constraining than 9-5 employment.  There’s little point saving time, if business swallows time saved. 

Be clear what you want from your business, from the beginning.  Then design a strategy to get what you want from the business.  You may need to compromise, especially during early years but without planning you can easily be drawn into using every minute for your business.

Think about the difference between working in and working on your business.  To work within your business is to focus on service delivery.  This is seductive because it is often the most enjoyable aspect of your business.  It may be essential during early years because you need experience to build a viable business.  As the business grows, you work on it to build capacity, so that you have time to enjoy life outside your business. 


Email marketing saves time in several ways.  Combined with a time management strategy, it makes a significant difference. 


This is perhaps the most under-valued aspect of email marketing.  If you publish an email at 9am every morning, you don’t need to be logged on to do it!  Schedule emails to go out to different groups of customers at different times of day. 

Bulk Activities

Bulk activities become more helpful as your list of customers and followers grows.  It makes little difference whether you mail 100 or 10 000 customers.  You can set up email campaigns that send different emails to segments of your list or send sequences of emails.   

Evergreen Product Launches

Automate sequences of emails to go out to groups of followers or customers.  These may be introductory sequences that build trust or automated sequences that lead to sales.  These are sometimes called Evergreen Product Launches because they go out to new followers or as a follow-up to people who have already made a purchase. 

Customer Relations Management

CRM is records of customers and the purchases they have made.  Segment lists to reach out to followers who make purchases.  A well-managed email list goes a long way to achieve this without an expensive, complicated custom CRM system.  You waste a lot of time with muddled customer records and email services go a long way to help you keep track of contacts.

Time Management

Taken alone, email systems don’t meet all time management needs.  Maintaining a large list may be time consuming in its own right.  So, you need a time management strategy.

The most effective way to do this is to get someone else to do the work.  Short of dragooning your family into involuntary graft, you have two options.

Hire people to do the work.  For example, some businesses offer administration support.  They may be expensive but if you need help with a specific task or have less work than warrants an employee, they may help.  Many services save time, even though they may not make a big thing of it.  Accountants take care of financial management, for example.

It’s worth considering whether you can save time outside your business, for example by hiring a domestic cleaner. 

The second option is to employ staff.  This is crucial if your business grows to the point where you need staff to manage aspects of the business.  If you plan on a business that mostly supports your work, you may get by with minimal assistance.  But larger businesses need managers.  They are not easy to find!  You need to hire people who could possibly take on a management role within 2 years.  This way you grow managers inside your business so when a vacancy arises, you have a pool of people to move into management positions. 

This completes this sequence about the advantages of email strategies.  Visit the first blog post about email marketing for a list of the posts and links to them.