couple walking together

Stay in the Moment to Tell Better Stories

How do you stay in the moment and manage events in past and future from that moment?  The anime Toradora is a consummate example of a love story.  It builds forwards and backwards (see below) and I strongly recommend it, to explore this aspect of storytelling.  The following describes a subplot and does not give much away.

Ryugi is the protagonist and his mother is extraordinary.  He is a schoolboy, deeply committed to cleaning and cooking.  If he sees something that needs cleaning or tidying, he’s on to it.  Yes, he actually enjoys housework!  His mother works in a bar, where she has an alter ego, who is about 20 years younger.  She is lazy, clingy and funny.  Ryugi is devoted to her and embarrassed by her. 

At first, she seems to be a brilliant comic creation.  As the main plot comes to a head, we realise there’s a subplot.  There are reasons things are as they are between them.  What we thought was purely a running gag turns out to be much more.  They’re rock solid, devoted to each other but when does a mother tell her son the truth?  If you watch expecting a revelation, when it comes it seems minor.  It’s over in a sentence or two but explains what has gone before and something of what follows.

This is brilliant storytelling because we think a comic subplot is solely for entertainment until we see another story going on beneath the main story.  When we stay in the moment, we build tension and mystery that creates satisfaction in the audience when revealed.

Don’t Prefigure!

Stories are spoiled if the teller lacks faith in their story; they’re strongly tempted to reassure their audience all turns out well.  “I’m going to tell you the story of my breakdown and how I got through it.”  That’s not a good way to start.  You don’t occupy the moment of the story but some future time, looking back.

Say your breakdown was triggered by witnessing something in the street.  You could start with “I was walking down the street a few yards from home …” or better “I’m late, have just left home and hurrying down the street …”.  Both contain the same information.  In the second you stay in the moment.  The first is OK but the second feels more immediate.

It puts you in a frame of mind where you know only what you knew at the time.  You’re less likely to continue with “Little did I know, I was about to witness something that would cause a breakdown that took me years to recover from.”  This may seem a good way forward.  After all, what could possibly have happened that caused such a reaction?  In effect, it moves the focus to the event that precipitated the crisis and away from how the protagonist recovered. 

Say you continue like this, “As I rounded the corner. I saw …”.  Whatever it was, you are now in a position to describe it as you saw it.  It was a moment that held you prisoner for some years.  At the start of the story, the protagonist didn’t know what they’d get into or whether they’d get out of it. 

Their presence, telling the story, is perhaps a spoiler.  This is essentially a Voyage and Return story and so the precipitating event, however dramatic, is not really that important.  The protagonist enters a new world and has to find their way back.

The Art of Surprise

Whatever’s waiting around the corner is a surprise.  If truly surprising, you want to build tension.  But the real challenge is how to hold attention for the rest of the story. 

Some event precipitated a breakdown.  What did you lose?  What did you almost lose?  You might have contemplated suicide but you’re stood in front of an audience, so there’s no surprise there. 

Your first task is to describe the new world you occupy.  Maybe you lost your job, your family or became addicted to something … Were you drawn in by something that at first seemed positive and then proved to be a disaster? 

Take the audience to a dark place. The tension is in how you get out of it.  At the darkest time, you could not see your way out.  So, when you take your audience with you, neither should they.

Sow seeds earlier in the story. If the audience does not see their significance until later, you surprise them with something that feels right.  The reveal is not an intervention from God but something that flows from what went before and makes sense later in the story.

Building Forwards and Backwards

Let’s say you have a couple of main characters.  If you have the space of a novel, you can manage more.  Game of Thrones is gripping because it has many characters and several tell the story from their own point of view. Each of the 7 or more volumes is weighty!

We’ll stick with two.  Explore the relationship between them.  There are two ways (at least) to do that. 

Building Forwards. Follow their interactions.  Boy meets girl and they walk home together from school.  They talk.   They argue.  We know where this is going.  The tension is in how they overcome the obstacles to their growing relationship.  The problems they encounter show the differences in the way they approach them.  What happens as they learn to work together? 

If one of them is the protagonist, tell the story from their point of view. They have no idea what’s happening inside the other’s head.  They watch and learn and the other does the same.  As we listen, we ask whether they are right for each other.  How will this end?

Building Backwards.  Another way to build character, tension and surprise your audience is through their past.  What we see is rooted in some unknown past event.  Now the story depends on some revelation that clears the air between the two characters.

The technique is to drop hints and clues.  The best are disguised as window dressing.  What seems an arbitrary quirk, turns out to be rooted in something important that needs to be brought to light.  Handled well, you feel tension building because one or more characters act in apparently inexplicable ways.  Or perhaps the revelation resolves something for another character, causing them to act in an unexpected way. 

Both ways build tension and tension resolves through emotion.  Understanding emotion and how to use it in written and spoken stories is the art of the storyteller and the topic for next time.

Footsteps in Sand

Character Development: The Point of Your Story

Last time I looked at how to introduce characters into your story.  This time it’s character development, perhaps the most important topic to storytelling because without it, there is no story.

Here’s a continuation of last time’s story:

My team had a plan but did not share it with me.  They knew about my bereavement and so things flowed a little easier.  What they didn’t tell me was they sheltered me from bad news.  So, my decisions were still way off because I did not have the full picture.

They fielded my instructions and responded to situations as they understood them.  Mostly they were on the ball but didn’t follow instructions.  This led to more conflict.  When I started disciplinary procedures, I had to face a delegation from the staff.

I stopped them hiding bad news. Despite several mistakes, they’d taken initiative and overall done pretty well.  I had to change the way I worked; allocate more responsibility and trust my team.  With permission to speak to me, if I was too directive, I made a real effort to listen.

My team responded and gradually we hammered out how to work productively.  

The Hero’s Journey

This outline story shows how someone changed their management style.  Note the scope for character development, not just the protagonist’s but also for one or more members of his team. 

The hero, sometimes called protagonist, is the main character.  He or she is the person we root for.  They are always inadequate to the task.  They want to achieve something but are not equipped to do it.

Their story shows how they acquire what they need for success.  Their needs may be external, eg wealth or weapons, or internal, character development.  Often external needs are met through character development.  Indeed, grabbing external advantage before they are internally prepared is disastrous.  Tragedy is about a hero who oversteps the mark and pays for it later.

Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots have, with the possible exception of Comedy, a similar five-fold structure:

  1. An initial challenge taken up by the hero.
  2. Early good progress.
  3. Barriers, obstructions, temptations encountered.
  4. A final confrontation, where the hero almost loses.
  5. Final victory (or defeat) and the aftermath. 

It is possible to tell a story with little or no character development, eg James Bond is reset at the beginning of each film.  But mostly we are interested in how the hero finds the resources they need to meet their goal.

You Are the Protagonist

What happens when you are the protagonist?  It’s possible you can’t see how your character developed.  This is one reason personal stories seem less compelling than fiction. 

Some people go through significant trauma and emerge with a clear image of how they were before and how they are now.  Leaving aside how accurate their picture is, they at least have a compelling story.  If you listen to their story over time, they revise their story as their understanding deepens.

What about the rest of us? 

Here are a few thoughts.

  • Talk to others involved in your story.  Ask them to tell it from their perspective.  Find out what changes they saw in you.  You don’t need to include everyone present at the time.  In the story at the head of this post, it is not even clear how many were in the team.  You could name and develop one or more team members, leaving the rest anonymous.
  • Rehearse your story, telling it from the perspective of other characters.  Do this with or without interviewing them.  Imagine the changes they perceived.  You could be biased but in private there’s no need to be.
  • Rehearse with others present and invite feedback.  Does this ring true?  If they are part of the story, they can perhaps be more helpful but even people who were not present may raise helpful insights.
  • Introduce more characters into the story.  Villains are particularly good at uncovering the hero’s weaknesses.  Anyone can challenge the hero, though and a guide or support character can be just as helpful.
  • Or introduce more threats into the hero’s journey.  Give them more to overcome.  This shows up weaknesses and hidden strengths.

Telling a story from real life, you inevitably summarise what might have been a long complex story.  You should include incidents that serve character development for the hero and possibly other characters.

More Than One Character

Time is a big constraint for most business storytellers, with a few minutes to tell their story.  Whilst character development is possible, what happens when there is more than one character?

You don’t have to be the hero of your own story!  A parent, spouse or business partner might take on that role.  Try out your story with various heroes and see what happens!

However, you don’t have the space to tell a complex story, like the novelist or writer of TV series, anime and the like.  When you have more time, you can develop several characters.  

What can you do in a few minutes?

Some characters are ciphers.  If there is a doctor in your story, you don’t have to say much about them.   We all know what doctors do and mostly make do with that general idea.  Your doctor needs no name, sex or age, unless such information is important to the story.

The next step up is characters you describe but don’t develop.  Your team has four members called A B C and D.  Name them and explain what they bring to the team in support of your goal.  They interact with you and each other but you don’t need to focus on their development.

Slowly reveal their powers.  Don’t include everything about them in your first description.  Seed hidden powers early in the story, so when they’re revealed it is not as a sudden escape hatch.  This helps the audience feel they are getting to know the character without spending a lot of time on development.  These characters are predictable but that’s OK so long as they have a role in the story.

If a secondary character develops alongside the hero, we expect it to be someone who matters to the hero.  A villain who interacts with the hero, for example.  If the story is about a relationship, perhaps leading to marriage, then expect some character development in the partner. 

Bear in mind the voice the story is in.  If it is told from the point of view of the protagonist, they do not have access to the innermost thoughts of other characters.  In a love story, for example, they don’t know what the other is thinking.  You can have a lot of fun with that but when the other’s thoughts are revealed it is still a reveal and not necessarily character development.

And this leads us to the topic of the next post: staying in the moment as understood by the protagonist.  This allows other characters to be surprising, even though as characters they might not develop.

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.


Plotting Your Story

Recently, I delivered a 30 minute talk about how to find raw material for storytelling.  I described the walk from my home to the venue for the talk.  I showed myself pondering what to say to the group as I walked along.  (Most was prepared in advance!)  Plotting your story means turning mundane material into something your audience wants to hear.

Every incident was something I experienced that same day.  I had ideas before I set out, knowing the places I would walk through.  I prepared teaching and exercises for the group and incorporated reflections on the exercises in the fictional walk. 

On the way in I noted, there was a polling station in Sorby House, this enabled me to remind my listeners to vote!  By the river, I encountered two boys, one of whom threw a half bottle of Coca Cola into the river.  I was annoyed but then celebrated because I could add the incident to my story.

I ended by describing a heron I saw on the river.  I saw the heron that day, several hours before the walk. 

The exercises showed how we find stories from our pasts.  My story illustrated use of material from this day to make a story.  Processing raw material into a narrative is plotting.  “I walked to this meeting and on the way saw a polling station, a boy throw a bottle in the river and a heron” may not feel like a story but it depends on what you do with the material; it depends on plotting your story.

What is Plotting? 

It’s the shape you give to your story.  Once you have a story, work out how to tell it.  One story, many possible plots.  The challenge is to tell a compelling story that holds attention and delivers a satisfactory conclusion. Here are a few things to consider.


If you tell the story in the order in which it happened, it can be very effective.  For my story about the walk, it makes sense to begin at the beginning of the journey, follow the route and end at the end.  Most people don’t know the route and so wouldn’t know if I varied it but the story needs logical progression. 

However, chronological order can be tedious.  We’ve all heard stories begin with “I was born in 1973 and went to school at …”.  There are many things wrong with this approach.  It’s dull.  There’s nothing to root for in this account, why should I care about the year you were born or where you went to school?  If these facts matter, mention them in passing.

Begin stories with action; something the audience cares about.  It could be some dilemma: “Should I hand myself into the police and face years in prison?”  This raises questions like, what had I done?  Did I go to prison?  How did I get out?  Opening this way, deliberately holds back information to share as you tell the story.  The audience trusts you to answer these questions (and more!) as the story unfolds. 

Open in the action and then work out questions that might be in the listeners’ minds?  In what order will you answer them?  How can you tell the story to answer them in that order?  Building tension as you unravel a mystery, is far more compelling than one damn thing after another.

In the Present

One way to avoid dull chronological accounts is to set the story in the present moment.  Here are a few things to think about.

If this is a story of transformation, show us the end-state first.  Say, you recovered from alcoholism.  Perhaps begin the story by showing your present lifestyle.  It needs to be active in some way: “I’m about to go on stage and deliver my keynote speech in front of 400 people.  A few years ago I would not have done this, even fortified by a stiff drink.”  From here flashback to your history and return to the keynote, possibly highlighting what happened afterwards.

Note how I constructed a false present in the telling.  “I’m about to go on stage…” and not “I was about to go on stage …”.  It’s a false present in the sense that the real present is you and your audience.  The false present shows you post-transformation and invites comparison with an earlier time when certain issues were not resolved.  It also enables return to the false present and indeed to the real present: “… and that’s how I’m able to tell you this story today.”  Not particularly exciting as an ending but it shows what I mean.

Begin Close to the End

Bring the action of the story as close to the present as possible.  Usually, you offer your audience hope.  Show how change has happened in your life, explain how it happened and then return to the present.  You could begin with some key crisis point to build tension, while you explain how you got there and finish the story by resolving the crisis. 

This approach satisfies the audience.  When you return to the crisis, the audience knows the tension will soon be resolved and the story will close. 

The story will depend on flashbacks.  A common pattern is CABC.  Here A is how you got into the problem.  This may be childhood issues or some mistake you made.  B is how you resolved the issue.  C is the state you are in now that contrasts with the state you were in when the problem began.

There are many alternative plot structures.  It’s worth thinking through how your story works when you focus on the end of the story and then work out how you got there.

Finish the Story

Once you resolve the tension in the story, finish as swiftly as you can.  It’s tempting to ramble on, drawing out lessons, explaining what happened later and how all your friends reacted to the changes in your life.  When the story is over, it’s over – don’t prolong the agony!

One option is to segue into teaching.  Incorporate teaching into your story or break the story for teaching.  The way to do this is to finish the story with some key idea you draw from the story.  Then start teaching with the same key idea.  This is where to include a call to action or make an offer, if you are telling a marketing story.


There’s a lot to plotting and it’s impossible to cover it all in one blog post.  The genius to good storytelling is in how you tell it.  Indeed, as your skills as a storyteller develop, you’ll make even the most mundane activity into a compelling narrative. 

Future posts will explore other aspects of plotting and next time we’ll look at setting the scene.


How to Educate Followers Through Emails

Sarah is not happy with sales for her first online training course.  She accepts first attempts are rarely brilliant but she can’t see what else to do to sell an online product she knows is very good.  She promoted the course through email marketing and wonders whether there’s more to educating followers before she makes an offer.

Educate Followers by Adding Significant Value

Use the OVO method to mail valuable information to your list before making an offer.  The offer appeals to those who value the free information and sign up for a deeper exploration of the subject.

The information shared during an initial marketing campaign serves several purposes, by

  • demonstrating your knowledge of the subject,
  • showing you convey it in an accessible and clear way,
  • pointing to further knowledge and expertise they gain by participating, and
  • showing the benefits of mastering the subject area.

Use an initial sequence of emails to help your market understand the value of your offer.  It is common for markets to be unaware of a problem, perhaps because they are unable to name it, or don’t believe there are solutions, let alone you offer a solution. 

Share information that opens the gap between their current understanding of their problem and the possibility of doing something constructive about it.  Your offer must bridge that gap.

Teaching during your marketing takes various formats.  It should be enough to sell the offer and no more.  You would expect less work to promote a low-end offer and much more for a high-end offer.  Aim to convey the value of your offer so the customer finds the offer worth more to them than its price.

There are many online media to market your offer and what you choose depends on the information you must get across.  Everything in this list is promoted through email and social media.  Use social media to find opt-ins to your email sequence.  Here are some possibilities:

  • Use email to promote low-end offers, with a link to a landing page
  • Long sales letter on a webpage
  • Video
  • Audio, for people to listen to driving or jogging.
  • Webinars

Resistance to Education

There is resistance to education, from a variety of sources.  Some people don’t like reading on screens, for example.  Others have bad experiences of education. 

Beware of words like “education” or “learning” and their derivatives.  People want to know the benefits of your product.  “Find out how to…” may work better than “Learn how to…”. 

Educate followers about the value of your offer.    In the earlier stages, where you raise awareness of the problem and demonstrate it can be addressed, you don’t need to mention your offer other than to hint it is coming.  Simply communicate interesting and helpful stuff. 

Once people see the value of taking this work further, offer your solution.

How Much Value?

How much value should you offer during your marketing?  There’s no one size fits all answer.  There’s no in-principle limit to the amount you share.  However, your offer should promise a step-up in value from your marketing.  How? 

  • Offer bonuses that cover essential areas you did not cover in your marketing. 
  • Present teaching material in a variety of user-friendly ways, eg handouts via pdfs.  Diagrams and mindmaps appeal to some customers. 
  • Demonstrate your offer presents in-depth knowledge for those who appreciate your marketing.  What is the value of going deeper?
  • Demonstrate your offer helps them apply new skills to their specific circumstances. 
  • Offer contact with other customers, supporting a community of users who help each other with application of learning. 
  • Share materials produced by customers as a result of your offer.
  • Feedback to customers.
  • Offer opportunities to ask questions.
  • Sometimes confidentiality may be important.  Also consider related issues, such as copyright.

Few of these happen during marketing campaigns.  Think about the support customers need to implement solutions you offer and work out how your offer delivers them

The next post is the final one in this sequence about email marketing.  Email saves time.  Really!  Read it to find out more!

bouquet of white lilies

Use Stories to Communicate Information

Last time I asked, what is a story? Here is a story based on a recent experience. How does it communicate information and what information does it communicate?

In April this year, I attended a funeral.  The woman who died was not close, she chaired a voluntary organisation where I was treasurer.  The last time I saw her was when she stepped down in May last year.

Nevertheless, I was deeply moved.  She was 49 years old and had many plans.  Imagine her on New Year’s Eve, looking forward to what 2019 would bring.  Her diagnosis and the disease that overwhelmed her happened between February and April.  After she died her family heard she had qualified for her degree.  It seems utterly pointless and puts all our achievements in perspective.

My father used to say, “You always have 10 years to live.”  Obviously, that is not true for many who read this or indeed perhaps for the author.  We simply don’t know.  The point my father made was we should live as if we have time to complete our plans.  The woman who died had great plans and her mourners were a part of them and saw her plans die with her.

I’ve already lived 15 years longer than she did.  I am in good health and have loads of plans.  I sometimes wish I was 15 years younger because I sense I need more time.  It does run out but also we cannot be certain.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if I gave up for reasons of age and then lived another 3 decades?

Stories Entertain

Perhaps reading this story, you don’t feel entertained.  It’s not a happy story.  But ask yourself these questions.  Did you read through to the end?  Were you moved by the story?  I deliberately held back a lot of detail because you don’t need it. 

Entertainment is not necessarily pleasurable; there is something compelling about a sad story.  A funeral is an ending as well as the beginning of many peoples’ stories.  Her family have much to look forward to, they grieve and move on, perhaps inspired by her example, to build on her story.

We all try to make sense of our lives.  What is the point of a degree I’ll never use?  What is the point of plans that never bear fruit?  We need stories to show us endings are also new beginnings.  We explore these issues because we all make plans. If we give in because one day we’ll die, the world becomes a less colourful place.

Stories Educate

This story aims to educate without hard evidence.  It aims to encourage thinking about mortality.  We face certainty, one day our friends will awake and find we’re no longer with them.  How do we face up to that?  In one sense there is always time and in another it runs out unexpectedly.  How do we respond?  My father’s view is one response.  Does it work for you?

Stories help communicate learning and facts.  Indeed, it is hard to communicate without stories.  If you use statistics to communicate, you project a graph onto a screen but then what?  You can’t leave the audience to draw their own conclusions.  You must point them in some direction.  

Facts delivered as stories are more likely to be remembered and if a story engages the audience, it encourages them to think around your topic.  Whether they pick holes in it or conclude they agree with you, they are likely to interact.  Interaction is much more valuable than agreement.  Don’t believe me?  When did you last share a carefully crafted social media or blog post and receive no feedback at all?  Stories don’t guarantee feedback but increase the possibility you hold attention until the end and help the audience process and raise questions.

Can stories undermine your talk, by taking a topic and making it seem less serious?  If you begin with research and show evidence for your argument, the story reinforces your message.  Back up your story with evidence, even by circulating a fact sheet.

Stories are Emotional

Emotion is a pitfall if you feel too strongly about your story.  Decide what you want your audience to feel and feel that emotion as you tell the story. 

The story may be happy or sad, even traumatic but mostly, especially for business, leave the audience hopeful.  Show there is reason to hope and your audience is moved and inclined to hear your message.

Bring the audience to a point where they see how to address a problem and you bring them to a buying state.  Finish with a call to action and they are likely to follow it if they are moved.

Stories communicate information effectively precisely because they generate positive emotion.  Communicate information in an entertaining story and it is more likely to be remembered. With emotional impact, it is likely to be acted upon, through a call to action.

To achieve this, you must understand plotting, so that is the topic next time.

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