2009-11-30_1352Never for­get: you prac­tice a queer trade, mak­ing you an odd duck by default.

If you’ve ever had some­one totally miss-read a blog post and walk away think­ing the oppo­site of your intended mes­sage, chances are you for­got what an odd duck you are.

As a writer, chances are that you’re more at ease with the idea of cre­at­ing mean­ing through inter­pre­ta­tion of events, and of crit­i­cally exam­in­ing a nar­ra­tive for mul­ti­ple mean­ings, con­tra­dic­tions, open end­ings, shades of grey, nuances, etc.  And you likely bring those same skills to bear on every­thing you read.

Most Peo­ple Don’t Read The Same Way You Read

That level of analy­sis may be sec­ond nature for you, but it’s a lot of unpleas­ant work for most peo­ple, who gen­er­ally don’t think to put that effort into 99% of what they read.  When you for­get that, you write some­thing that’s bound to be misunderstood.

So here’s what to do about it…

The Straight­for­ward Gram­mar of Busi­ness Stories

In order to tai­lor your writ­ing to a gen­eral audi­ence and to avoid mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, you’ll want to inten­tion­ally struc­ture your story the way most read­ers think about and remem­ber sto­ries.  The mes­sage can be unex­pected, but the nar­ra­tive struc­ture used to deliver it shouldn’t be.

And when it comes to busi­ness sto­ries or para­bles, most non-writers think in terms of three nodes:

  1. Hero,
  2. Villain/Obstacle, and
  3. Turn­ing Point/Triumph.

Com­plex, rich, sat­is­fy­ing sto­ries may con­tain more mov­ing parts, but busi­ness para­bles shouldn’t. If you’re telling an anec­dote or fable to make a point, you’ll want to keep the nar­ra­tive struc­ture sim­ple.  Who’s the hero?  What’s he want?  And who the hell is get­ting in his way?

If your main point or gen­eral story struc­ture doesn’t fit neatly within this struc­ture, peo­ple will mis­re­mem­ber or warp your story in order to fit the frame­work, often to the point of chang­ing your intended meaning.

The Unwrit­ten Expec­ta­tions For Each Sto­ry­telling Node

In addi­tion to sim­pli­fy­ing your story to those three nodes, make sure you tell the story in such a way as to meet audi­ence expec­ta­tions for each of the nodes:

  • Regard­less of what writ­ing instruc­tors and Eng­lish teach­ers may have taught you, in a busi­ness story the hero should always be the guy you talk about the most in the telling of the story.  If you talk too much about some­one other than the hero, you’ll likely con­fuse your audience.
  • The vil­lain should be, well, vil­lain­ous, even if the vil­lain is just an obsta­cle.  Make sure your audi­ence can see the das­tardly pain and gnash­ing of teeth your villain/obstacle causes.
  • Dra­ma­tize the turn­ing point for the hero.  Don’t be sub­tle about it; nov­el­ist can paper over a momen­tous deci­sion or a-ha moment for lit­er­ary effect, but a busi­ness para­ble can’t afford that kind of sub­tlety.  And make sure the vic­tory fol­lows imme­di­ately after the deci­sion point.  Most impor­tantly, what­ever point you’re try­ing to con­vey had bet­ter be made and “proved” dur­ing the turn­ing point and vic­tory.
  • Remem­ber that every­thing in the story will either get lumped in with the hero or the vil­lain – they (or it) will inevitably be remem­bered as either help­ing the hero achieve vic­tory or work­ing against the hero, with no room for neu­tral or con­flicted par­ties, char­ac­ters, or elements.

If you com­pli­cate the struc­ture, or bury your point out­side of that frame­work, or con­fuse peo­ple by talk­ing too long about some­one other than the hero, the reader will likely walk away think­ing some­thing totally dif­fer­ent than your intended point.

Here’s a text­book exam­ple of what can go wrong:

What Hap­pens When You Vio­late the Structure

Roy Williams used a Mon­day Morn­ing Memo as a sort of char­ac­ter sketch, con­trast­ing the dif­fer­ence between faith in, well, prov­i­dence, in the largest sense of that word, and a blind slav­ery to “the sure thing.”

Specif­i­cally, he wrote about how Joe Weppner’s under­dog bout against Muham­mad Ali for the heavy­weight title inspired Stal­lone to write the script for Rocky.  And, more impor­tantly, he wrote about the incred­i­ble faith it took for Stal­lone to turn down a Studio’s offer of $400,000 for the script alone in favor of $25,000 and the chance to play the part of Rocky.

But Roy spent most of the Memo set­ting the stage by talk­ing about Wepp­ner and his sin­gu­lar chance at beat­ing the odds.  Not until the last few para­graphs does Roy intro­duce Sylvester Stal­lone and his gutsy move to turn down the “sure bet” of $400K for the chance to play the part of Rocky.

So when Roy closes his Memo by con­trast­ing Weppner’s short-sighted slav­ery to “the sure thing” – about how Wepp­ner took a $70,000 flat fee instead of a 1% cut of the movie’s gross that turned out to be worth $8 mil­lion – to Stallone’s faith, well, most read­ers missed the point of the memo.

How do I know?  Because Roy’s MMM from two weeks after that opens with:

I recently wrote a Mon­day Morn­ing Memo… about how Chuck Wepner’s fight against Muham­mad Ali pro­vided the inspi­ra­tion for Sylvester Stal­lone to peck out the screen­play of Rocky, a low-budget film that, against all odds, won the Acad­emy Award for Best Motion Pic­ture in 1976. As expected, I was flooded with emails from peo­ple shar­ing sto­ries of friends and fam­ily who “like Wep­ner” valiantly did their best in the face of insur­mount­able odds.

Funny thing is, that wasn’t the point of the memo

Roy’s Story Struc­ture Vio­lated the Gram­mar of Busi­ness Parables

Wepp­ner was the main char­ac­ter in the story, and yet Wepp­ner was nei­ther the hero nor the vil­lain.  Sylvester/Rocky was the hero.  Daunt­ing odds and the temp­ta­tion of the “sure thing” was the obstacle.

So where does that leave Wepp­ner?  That leaves Wepp­ner to either be con­fused with or asso­ci­ated with the Hero, or to be lumped in with the Obstacle/villain.  Busi­ness para­bles leave no room for a com­pli­cated and con­flicted third character.

So even though Wepp­ner was both the inspi­ra­tion for Rocky AND the guy who gave into the temp­ta­tion of the sure thing, his image as the real-life inspi­ra­tion for Rocky was what peo­ple took away from the Memo — even though that was the oppo­site of the intended point.

Fix Your Sto­ries by Stick­ing to The 3-Node Structure

Do this by ensur­ing that:

  1. The Hero is clearly the hero.  Make sure he gets the most descrip­tion and “time in front of the cam­era.”  If Roy had set-up with the image of Stal­lone refus­ing to sell-out his dream rather than pre­sent­ing the image of Wepp­ner as a gutsy and dogged fighter, they’d likely have been a lot less confusion.
  2. The Vil­lain or Obsta­cle is pre­sented “onscreen.” If your vil­lain isn’t tan­gi­ble, the reader will likely sub­sti­tute a tan­gi­ble vil­lain for the one you intended.  In Roy’s MMM the villain/obstacle was the temp­ta­tion to sell-out to the sure thing.  But sell­ing out isn’t eas­ily visu­al­ized and there was no Mephistophe­lean vil­lain to embody sell­ing out.  So most reader’s likely sub­sti­tuted “the sys­tem” as the vil­lain, with the sys­tem act­ing as the embod­i­ment of con­ven­tional wis­dom and “the odds.” The sys­tem may not be visual, but everyone’s been beaten down by it at one point or another, and every­one knows what it’s like to long for a mag­i­cal moment of beat­ing the odds.  So read­ers paired Wep­ner the boxer and Stal­lone the actor in their bat­tles to beat the system/odds.
  3. Turn­ing Point & Vic­tory: While the vic­tory for Stal­lone imme­di­ately fol­lowed on his turn­ing down the $400K, there really isn’t as much of an emo­tional turn­ing point for Wepp­ner.  He lost out on $8 Mil­lion, but we have no idea how badly he did or didn’t need the money.  Or how much he did or did not like being a liquor whole­saler in Bay­onne, LA.

I’m not sug­gest­ing that you “talk down” to your audi­ence or that you only tell sim­plis­tic sto­ries.  I am sug­gest­ing that you become aware of this frame­work so that the busi­ness or copy­writ­ing sto­ries you tell end up mak­ing the point you hope them to make.


  1. Tom Wanek on 12.02.2009

    I had for­got­ten about that memo and the intended point being lost on the reader. I went back and re-read both memos, thanks for bring­ing up this topic Jeff.

    Your 3-node struc­ture also reminds me to have just one ‘hero’ per ad.
    .-= Tom Wanek´s last blog ..Could Cus­tomer Hoop-Jumping Be Rob­bing You Blind? =-.

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