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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Use the power of story to tell what you do

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Also see writing with heart.


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

If youíre smart, you tell a story. When someone asked Dan 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.

"Whatís an equity stripper?" someone else 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.

"Thatís 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 Saint 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 proceeding 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 in your communication, both written and oral, is to consider your options. At the most basic level, you have only 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. Itís 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 organizationís 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 wasnít the first time he has explained how he works to help people who have been victimized by dishonest and unscrupulous lenders. He was offering a well-rehearsed and 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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