One of the most important skills we must master to be successful in life is communication. Put simply, this means being able to tell your story. Whether making a business proposal, teaching a history lesson, drawing a picture or writing up research, we are always in the process of telling a story and trying to get our audience to understand it.
There are some simple steps to follow to create an effective story. You don’t have to worry about assembling index cards or creating perfect outlines on graph paper, which I was taught to do as a child but have never, ever done. A good story develops from a simple process.
Before you begin, you need to answer some questions: Who is my audience? What is the information I’m trying to convey? What result do I want? What structure is required?
If my audience is a college admissions director, I need to put myself in that person’s place. I imagine the admissions director’s life: sitting in an office, reading tons of applications, overwhelmed with various stresses. I get a picture of that person and of his or her need. Does he or she want to find good students? Identify those worthy of a scholarship or grant? Find people who will be a credit to the institution?
Whatever the need, I know I must somehow answer that need in the story I tell.
Then I assemble the information necessary to tell the story. This is the research phase. I may read books, talk to people, do experiments and write down the data, or look at the physical environment I am going to describe. During this stage, I immerse myself in gathering information. As I go along, a certain picture may begin to emerge. Because I already have my audience in mind, I may realize this person may want to know a certain fact or may ask a particular question. I then go deeper into those areas, filling any gaps in my own knowledge.
When I’m satisfied that I know the material fully, I need to determine the structure the story needs to take. If I have two minutes to give a talk, my approach will be different than if I have 90 minutes for a movie to run. If I need to limit myself to 500 words, I know I must quickly state the case and create my conclusions. Understanding the parameters will help me focus on giving my explanation according to how my audience is ready to receive it.
Finally, I really need to understand my own goal — how I want the audience to respond. Do I want them to buy my product? Vote for my candidate? Change a habit? Understand an issue? Before I begin the mechanical steps involved in telling the story, I need to have a clear concept of what result I want. Otherwise, I won’t know when the communication has been effective.
Most stories will have a beginning, middle and end. As a general principle, I would say the beginning is where you create interest and agreement. You establish for the audience a certain framework they can understand. This may be by showing a “location shot” in a news story, for example, or by stating a problem and hypothesis in a lab report.
Next, you lead the audience through the situation, step by step. As you proceed, you imagine the audience’s natural questions at each step and provide the answers in a natural way.
Finally, you bring them to the conclusion, usually summing up the story with a final point of some kind. If you have set the scene well and answered their questions as you have proceeded through the story, the audience will understand and be responsive to your conclusion.
With today’s technology, we are communicating in new ways — slide shows, e-mails, music videos, Web pages — yet the same process always works.
Teaching children how to tell a story can start early, with listening to them play with their toys and asking them lots of questions. As they grow older, help them frame their descriptions of events: That happened on Saturday? Who was there? Why were they wet? How did they get to the lake? Pay attention when they tell stories and show your responses so they get a feel for what brings audience reaction.
Whether drawing, writing or using other media, children need to learn the skills of sharing their experience with others. Helping them build that ability is a parent’s primary job in education and an important part of developing cognitive function. As we teach our children, we are telling stories ourselves, and one day, we hope, they will pass on these stories.
Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer who lives in Maryland.