I rarely address fiction in this blog.
While many of the same concepts apply to storytelling in business, there’s still a gulf between the two disciplines.
But Sarah Lafferty pointed me to a book of Kurt Vonnegut short stories published after his death. The introduction includes what Vonnegut calls “Creative Writing 101,” which offers sound advice for storytellers of all ilk:
1.Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Yes, Mr. Vonnegut can write even when he’s pulling together storytelling tips for us mortals.
I particularly like No. 6 and the point that “no matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them.”
The beauty of storytelling in business is you don’t have to fabricate “awful things” to confront executives. They happen on their own … as the President of Toyota Akio Toyoda will attest.
Instead, the question for communications professionals becomes how much to disclose.
The standard company line is always “little if any.”
The suits are linear thinkers; i.e., the word “awful” brings a negative connotation and we don’t want the company associated with negatives.
But it’s your executive or executives overcoming the bad stuff – even things that might have been self induced – which in turn creates the drama of a good story.
As Vonnegut puts it, how your characters respond to the “awful things” allow the reader to “see what they are made of.”
So it is in the business world.
Your customers, employees and prospects want to see what you’re made of.
Lou, thanks very much for recognising my favourite author in your blog. I wanted to add that Kurt Vonnegut did PR for General Electric before he became a famous writer so there’s early proof that great storytelling and PR go hand in hand.
I didn’t know that Mr. Vonnegut worked in PR (trying to picture him counseling Jack Welch on how to handle an earnings call).
Vonnegut shares this trait with J.D. Salinger who also experienced the world of public relations while in the Army.
Storytelling Narrative Brands: A look at this week's stories
[…] Creative Writing 101 from Kurt Vonnegut Lou Hoffman shares some storytelling wisdom from one of the masters. Cord at Capstrat is a Vonn fan too. […]
This is awesome Lou. Vonnegut always had the ability to get to the nub of it, with humor and genuine wit. Thanks for sharing these great storytelling reflections!
I love #3 – “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” I’m thirsty…