Never neglect the power of telling a story

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • February 28, 2010 - 2:49 PM

How do you tell someone who knows little or nothing about your profession what you do?

If you're smart, you tell a story. When someone asked Dan Tyson at a Super Bowl party what he did for a living, he said he was a real estate attorney who worked to protect home owners from equity strippers.

"What's an equity stripper?" someone asked.

"Let me explain it this way," he said, and he told the following story:

An 85-year old woman got behind on her house payments. Her house was worth around $200,000, and she had only about $25,000 remaining on her mortgage. Along came three men who tricked her into signing her deed over to them, assured her they would sell her house back to her, charged her exorbitant payments and when she fell behind began eviction proceedings.

"That's equity stripping," Dan said. "As part of my pro bono work, I helped establish an equity stripping task force made up of a group of private practice and public employees associated with the Volunteer Lawyers Network and Legal Aid of Minneapolis and of St. Paul. We go after unscrupulous, predatory lenders, protect the rights of property owners and limit the damage done to neighborhoods by foreclosures and vacant houses."

Now, look again at the preceding two paragraphs. The first is narrative, the second exposition. If you eliminate the narrative paragraph, you can see how much less effective the expository paragraph is on its own.

One way to determine whether you are using narrative to good effect is to consider the options. At the most basic level, you have three: narration (telling), description (describing) and exposition (explaining). Anytime you put your fingers on a keyboard or open your mouth to speak, you are employing one of these three basic modes of communication.

Normally, you choose your mode without conscious thought. It's a natural choice, one you make all the time, and you move readily from one mode to another based on your purpose and intent.

But you may be making the wrong choice. Whether you are introducing a newly hired staff member to your team, writing a weekly column for your company newsletter or profiling your organization's success on its website, you may be neglecting the power of story.

As a general rule, the sooner you tell your story, the more likely you are to connect with your reader or listener. And the more compelling your story, the more engaged your audience.

When I think about how succinctly Dan told his story about the 85-year-old woman, I realize it wasn't the first time he has explained how he works to help people who've been victimized by dishonest and unscrupulous lenders. He was offering a well-rehearsed, carefully structured narrative to support his description and explanation of what he does for a living.

What is your story? Can you tell it in a single, well-structured paragraph?

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