Do you want your clients to relate to your stories? Explain how they work.

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Storyline Longform is a series of in-depth articles that explore narrative approaches to web writing and design. This week, we argue that the best way to pitch stories to your clients is to show them how they work.

Yes, you can teach storytelling

I hadn’t really thought about how other people understand stories until I ended up teaching short story writing at a community creative writing center I opened in 2015.

I’m a fiction writer, so I never really had to think about it. I just did it.

A story is a character with a problem. You have 6,000 words to get them out of the jam they’re in. When the story doesn’t ignite, you need to reconsider your point of entry. When it gets boring, you need to tweak the pacing or amp up the tension or trash irrelevant paragraphs. When readers lose their way, you need to go back and make sure you’ve emphasized critical details. If the ending isn't working, you may need to scrap the third act and start over so readers feel the impact your’e after.

Everyone knows that, right?

Actually, no, they don’t.

As I said, even writers don’t necessarily think about it.

When I did start to think about it, I realized something that would play a huge role in how I help businesses tell their stories today.

What I realized teaching short story writing to mostly novice writers is that you can’t really teach a person how to have ideas. Creativity, inspiration, talent, etc. is another business entirely. But you can teach them how stories work.

The reason you can do this is because stories usually work for a simple reason. Whether they’re in the New Yorker or on a Nike website, most stories work because they’re well built.

They start with a problem a reader wants to solve. They follow basic principles of story arc (tension, climax, resolution) as they navigate their characters through their dilemmas. Endings are organic, not tacked on, and they have impact because they’ve been foreshadowed. Most importantly, good stories don’t tell readers anything, they show them what they need to see so that they can be part of the narrative process from beginning to end.

Stories usually work for a simple reason. Whether they’re in the New Yorker or on a Nike website, most stories work because they’re well built.

Our receptivity to these basic storytelling building blocks was developed over hundreds of thousands of years of real and virtual campfires. Both as listeners and storytellers we respond to them. I would go so far as to say that these blocks are the DNA of all written and oral human communication.

So, while good stories might not be able to be created by computers, as Kurt Vonnegut famously suggested with his tongue in his cheek, most any story—from a Hollywood blockbuster or Werner Herzog arthouse picture to a Moth performance, highway billboard or Flannery O’Connor short story—can be explained.

Fiction teachers take this for granted.

Most people that don’t teach writing for a living don’t. That includes pretty much any client that comes to you looking for a new website, even if they already understand the value of company storytelling.

• • •

Company narratives don't matter unless you make them matter

I really would have liked to have been at the meeting where graphic designer Paul Rand told a recently jobless Steve Jobs how much the logo for his new company, NeXT, was going to cost him.

Jobs had just been fired from Apple. Rand’s price tag was $100,000.

But it wasn’t Rand’s fee that really amazed me when I read this anecdote. What amazed me was that Rand produced a 100-page brochure for Jobs explaining his design decisions down to the 28-degree tilt of the logo.

To me, this shows that Rand knew that: a) his client could understand how and why his design worked, and b) his explanation was essential to convincing him that it was the best choice.

When was the last time you explained how the story you created for a client works?

It might be time to think about this.

How to present a new idea is, perhaps, one of the designer’s most difficult tasks.
— Paul Rand

Now that storytelling has become a rubric for just about any kind of digital human communication, most clients get that their websites need stories, but just like many students studying short story writing for the first time, not all of them actually know what a story is.

That’s why, when I sit down with clients these days to discuss the static content I created for their websites, I always try to explain how the story I wrote works. I explain the choices I made to get there. I let them know why I began where I did and how the narrative is supposed to flow.

I stress that user engagement depends on this flow and on how information is revealed, i.e. how it can either make users feel like part of the problem-solving process or just pull them along like a conveyor belt to the contact button.

This is a far cry from Rand’s 100-page treatise, and it doesn’t mean that everyone will listen, but it does shows clients that you’ve thought about your narrative decisions and that you want to invite them into the process.

More often than not, when you do pitch a client a good story and explain it, they’ll dig it, and you’re all happy, even if they hadn’t really thought about their company that way before.

Of course, web text doesn’t live alone like text does in a book. It floats in an ocean of visuals, typefaces and typeface styles, margins and section widths, which I’d like to talk about too.

But first, do you want to see a website narrative in the wild? Tune in next week for a Storyline case study.

Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: