Tell me a story…

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What’s old is new again

Storytelling has been around forever, and is at the heart of cultural traditions. It informs, connects and entertains. It has become very popular for everything from corporate communications to marketing. Storytelling isn’t just about words, but a variety of multimedia elements that, taken together, evoke, incent or inspire.

But we are drowning in content
Content is everywhere: the Internet made everyone an author/philosopher, but it didn’t make everyone a good writer. “Content curation” helps to sift through the voluminous mayhem, but curation is not a cure. How many times have you been hooked by a provocative title or headline only to find the content that follows unimaginative or unintelligible?

Shock, awe and ambiguity
Edginess often replaces creative and thoughtful content as a means to stand out from the crowd. But if nothing shocks or surprises us anymore, how can we similarly be delighted? Even the most dramatic language will eventually attract ambiguity. Just as “urgent” has lost its urgency, the extreme is becoming less extraordinary. The many messengers create further noise that first beckons our attention and then quickly loses it. Ambiguity (and the tolerance of it) is robbing us of delight through its sameness and saturation.

So what do we do?
We work at it! The formula for cutting through the clutter and creating effective communications isn’t a big mystery, but it takes serious effort. Too much detail in a world of short attention spans will lose your audience, but you have to paint a picture and help them connect the dots: facilitate. Plain language is more accessible – for EVERYONE. Skip the academic or corporate jargon. And stop spoon-feeding with detail. Remember Hemingway? Stimulate the imagination…

Creating a narrative that resonates

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…for an affective response
To be effective, you need to be affective as well. This is especially important for building narratives, regardless of the purpose. Individual words can have a tremendous impact. Think of the power of “yes” or “no” in a text, video or graphic.

Captivation: from “cool” to “wow”
To captivate, you must not only attract attention, but hold it. Captivation creates an affective experience that inspires both intellectual and emotional responses. When the audience member can imagine how it would feel to have been at the scene, or been in someone else’s shoes as described through the narrative, there is a point of personal connection. Crisp, clear language that complements visuals and other sensory offerings is far more effective than verbosity.

Why the blog format is so popular
The plain language and brevity of posts makes them easier to write and easier to consume. The blog format has a more “personal” feel – like a conversation. Blog posts often tell a story, and storytelling creates a more collaborative community or audience that shares relatable posts. The act of sharing stories reinforces the social benefits of the community.

Be careful with language
Watch out for buzzwords and clichés, and double-check meaning. If you’re undertaking a fulsome review, be sure that your review is excessive and lavish, because that’s what fulsome means. A tortuous process is full of twists and turns; a torturous process denotes something a little more painful.

But it still has to evoke…and entertain
(From my winning entry in the Toronto Star’s 2013 Poetry Week contest.)

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From learning curve to full circle

Lifelong learning has become a mantra of modern existence, whether to explore passionate interests or enhance workplace skills. Once you hit the mid-career mark, however, it’s increasingly difficult to find good, useful and affordable professional development. Rare indeed are the one- or two-day sessions that actually deliver on what they’re advertising in a practical, transferable way. If not immediately applied, even the most promising models or tools quickly lose their lustre and become the latest additions to that one credenza drawer dedicated to conference swag.

Some argue that these events are more about networking anyway; if so, they should be developed and marketed with agendas better designed for mixing it up. Participants would need to know that ahead of time, of course, so they won’t be peeved that they can’t sit with their work chums and talk about what’s going on back at the office.

But changing organizational behaviour is tough. Early in my career, I had the chance to learn from a business strategist during a major re-engineering project. Through dogged prompting of other options and teasing out of risks, the naysayers were redirected by first-class change management until everyone heeded the boarding call. I admit to my own reticence when first hearing about tactics from their prestigious education, but I applied some of them in later years myself.

This kind of on-the-job learning, gained by observing and then doing, can be ideal. While you might not know all of the theory behind a certain technique, there is definitely an osmosis factor. Then knowledge turns to experience and wisdom through trial and error, exposure to new people, projects and environments, and zigzagging between roles and sectors.

We all hit the change-weary wall at some point though. I strongly resisted the digital-age machine until I felt the fear of falling out of step. I dove in headfirst, immediately hooked by the snappy headlines and instant gratification of new information. Nevertheless, the superfluous volume of content, along with the repetitive strain of clicking, thumb-typing, sweeping and scanning, made me long for a way to cut through the ambient noise and ambiguous discourse of digital-age mass communication and marketing.

Through a splendid stroke of serendipity, I saw the link for a certain MOOC (massive open online course). MOOCs are designed to connect interested learners with university courses offered at a variety of institutions – complete with lectures, tests and discussion forums – and free of charge other than the investment of your time and energy. You don’t earn a credit per se, but the value proposition can be high.

Critics of these programs note the tension between traditional brick-and-mortar classroom teaching and the so-called impersonal, anonymous online environment, citing issues of depth, quality and other factors both tangible and intangible, such as completion rates. But here’s the thing: MOOCs are ultimately a complement to formal in-class learning, not competition for it. There is a time and a place (and an audience) for both. Further, MOOCs are a safe way to try on a subject area without the drastic financial and life commitments that formal programs entail.

I found the materials in the MOOC I took to be highly engaging, the format readily accessible and the professors absolutely top-notch. There was also a vibrant and diverse community of students actively sharing, debating and connecting. I had to study, once I remembered how, because the quizzes and final exam very much tested whether or not you were paying attention “in class”. But I could immediately apply what I learned – some of the principles even as I was learning them – making the overall experience more beneficial than the aggregate of all of the brief professional development seminars, workshops and conferences I’ve attended over nearly two decades.

Ironically, the sponsoring institution for my course was the same school as that attended by the business strategist who wowed me early in my career. Now there’s a virtuous circle of learning if ever there was one.

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