Stories sit at the heart of communication; building rapport and empathy, creating and sharing schemas of shared understanding, imparting knowledge in a structured and predictable way.
Stories can be long or short, good or bad, but they are familiar and comfortable to everyone. A good story can be told in a very few words, or a great many. The story can be the same, but the detail is different. Previously, i’ve differentiated between the ‘micro stories’ that we pepper throughout conversations and the ‘macro stories’ that form the overall narrative. On my mind this week is the temptation to overcomplicate these stories in learning.
Working with Subject Matter Experts is always a challenge… why say it in a hundred words when you could use a thousand? Many of the subjects that we deal with are lengthy and sometimes complex, but that doesn’t mean that the stories we tell have to be likewise. People are able to pick up the gist of a story very easily; partly because of our familiarity with the form and partly because, generally, people are not daft and fill in the gaps. You don’t have to hammer home every detail and, critically, hammering home every detail makes the story clumsy and ineffective.
When you watch a film, you’ll often see plot devices used to fill in some details. This might be as simple as one character using another ones name at the start of a scene, or making reference to a previous element of the plot, to ensure that we are ‘tuned in’ to the correct place in the narrative. What you won’t see (at least, not in a good film) is the overuse of this. A character might say ‘Hey Charlie, you still hitched up with that Brummie girl?’, but they wouldn’t say ‘Hey Charlie, you still hitched up to that girl that you married two years ago in the ceremony at the Highcliff where your family turned up and your brother made the great speech where he talked about your time in service and how you…’. That would be clumsy, superfluous and ridiculous.
But that’s exactly what we frequently end up doing when writing learning solutions. I’m doing some work with a big financial service player at the moment, around a product launch. The script they’ve sent me is 30 pages long. Just for the product information. There’s about a page of useful information in there, but an awful lot of standardised language and other ‘fillers’. This is daft; nobody needs to read a thirty page document to understand this product. It’s not rocket science. It’s like the emperors new clothes. Just because ‘we’ve always done it this way’ doesn’t mean that this is a good way to do it
Making things overly long, overly detailed and overly ‘comprehensive’ can just come across as pointless, disengaging and, worse, patronising. The trouble with stories is that we are all expert communicators. We all engage in conversations every day, where we gauge the relevance and interest in conversations within seconds.
One of the most useful exercises that i still use in writing is to halve it. When an SME first gives me a draft of text, i tell them to bring it back, half the length. When they do, i then try to rewrite it and halve the length again. You can’t always do it, but you’d be surprised how often you can.
If that doesn’t work, i get them to read it out loud to me. If they get bored, what makes them think that i won’t?
A good story can be told in a novel, or recounted to someone on the train in two minutes. We need to practice our skills in honing down our stories to keep them truly powerful, concise and effective.