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Storytelling in non-fiction business writing

While doing substantive edits of several business books this year, I found myself repeating the same thing over and over again to authors: “This section could use more of a storytelling style.”

These books were about different business subjects, but what they had in common was the authors’ use of their own or others’ experiences to inspire readers to act—whether to improve their leadership skills, to make progress in their career, or to stay true to themselves when facing workplace pressure to act in ways that were contrary to their values and goals.

To help the authors understand what I meant by “storytelling style,” I turned to that old writing adage, “show, don’t tell.”

I explained that to show is to create a scene for the reader using the elements of almost any good story: character, action, dialogue, setting, plot (or narrative arc), and concrete, sensory details so the reader can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste what the characters do.

To tell, on the other hand, is to describe or summarize for the reader what is happening rather than letting them see it for themselves.

“Show us who the characters are, what the characters are doing, the words they say to each other, what the setting looks like, and so on. That will bring your experience alive and engage your readers in what you have to say,” I said.

To show one client what I meant, I offered an example.

Tell looks like this:

I faced the toughest choice of my career when a former colleague approached me about becoming the president of a new company he was forming. It was a great opportunity, but I had to consider not only the benefits of taking the position but also the costs, particularly to my personal life—I was a single dad raising a young son at the time.

Show looks more like this:

I was packing up some work to take home late one afternoon when my phone rang. Call display showed it was a former colleague, and I picked up with a hearty “hey, Bob!”

I assumed he had called just to chat and catch up, but he quickly cut to the chase: “I’m starting a new company, and I want you to join me as its president,” he said.

I was speechless. Bob didn’t seem to notice my silence as he described his ambitions for the new company and the role he saw me playing. My mind started racing. What an opportunity! The job came with a higher salary, the chance to shape a company from its beginnings, and a promotion from my stable, but also rather stale, position as vice president in a large firm where there was little chance of advancement in the foreseeable future.

But there were also some pretty steep personal costs to consider: building a start-up company from scratch would take a lot of time and energy. I looked at the photo of my pre-teen son on my desk. As a single dad, I knew he would need more time from me in the years ahead.

“Can I have a few days to think about it?” I asked Bob at the end of his pitch. I promised to get back to him by the end of the week. One week to make the toughest choice of my career.

Showing the story unfold like this engages the reader’s senses and creates a kind of mental movie. This makes the material stick in the reader’s mind in a way that recapping, paraphrasing, and other expository writing does not.

Despite my best efforts, it was often a struggle for the authors I was working with—all business people and not professional writers—to pull off a storytelling style in a voice that still sounded like them.

When I cast about for resources that might help, a colleague shared her favourite “show, don’t tell” resource: Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. I agree that this site is valuable, yet I still look for something aimed not at fiction writers, but at busy professionals who need tips for writing a good yarn.

And so I turn to you: what storytelling resources would you recommend for the non-fiction business author?

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