Late last year, I immersed myself in the world of storytelling for a month when I agreed to help a team of English teachers review their school’s annual literary journal. From the trenches of World War One to the complexities of teen relationships and the deepest Australian outback, the settings of these high school students’ poems, short stories and essays were vast and varied.
Reading the pieces brought back floods of my own high school memories. Of course, I was a certified bookworm and relished every chance to write. My more science-minded classmates were less than happy with that part of school.
However, now that I help clients daily in communicating complex messages, I can honestly say that no matter your career plans, good storytelling skills will set you apart from your peers.
So, in no particular order, here are five ways you might do that.
Rhythm, rhyme, word play and alliteration all gave life to the students’ thoughts, and those efforts never go unnoticed on the reader’s senses. Same goes for sophisticated sentence links that enhance logic and build momentum. And let’s not forget the basics: punctuation. How would colleagues respond to a workplace memo that introduced their new teammate as: ‘Danny, who likes cooking his family and his dog’? Just one little comma, and all would be saved.
If you’ve ever read illogical instructions or puzzling policies, you’ll know that writing craft isn’t just important for sectors such as law or the creative industries. It’s equally important in manufacturing, engineering, hospitality, services and finance.
Planning, pace, dialogue, tension, resolution: the Seven Steps to Writing Success are being taken to heart at schools across Australia, primary and high school alike. The strongest stories in this particular anthology displayed narrative skills that were well beyond the students’ years. If you didn’t already know that storytelling is a full-time occupation at trailblazing firms such as Atlassian and Apple, then take a look around the worlds of law, marketing, business, stakeholder engagement, government and other persuasion-heavy sectors. You’ll agree that this art is more relevant than ever.
Writer’s block? There’s no such thing, when you’ve done your research. Historical episodes, personal dramas, the backstory of an artwork, or the engineering smarts of a submarine: such details are the fuel of a good story. Research skills include listening, summarising and organising. They’re essential to almost every career, whether it’s customer service, finance, business, market research, health sciences or anything else.
The poets among you can take concepts rich in meaning – darkness, certain animals, heartbeats – and push them to the very edges of the metaphors they suggest. While in reality few of us will go on to become working poets, written nuance is something you’ll see in most professional sectors, from advertising to corporate coaching. And no HR practitioner can be blind to the connotations of a sentence like, ‘we need to talk about your future’. See what I mean about nuance?
As all TED fans will know, a close exploration of someone’s fears, passions, past and future is compelling stuff. Thanks to the questions these students had already asked and conversations they’d already had in their lives, their stories presented highly plausible characters: dementia patients, fearful refugees, lonely teens, brazen adventurers and more. Having an ability to gauge different personalities is also what sets apart standout scientists, psychologists, doctors and all the other professions I’ve mentioned so far.
If you’ve ever done creative writing and it didn’t get published, awarded or shared, then take heart. Keep trying. Good writing craft takes time to develop. The stronger writers out there probably write or tell stories more often than you realise – they are the diarists, Facebookers, jokers and talkers among you.
So start small, practice often, and never stop learning how to write better.