Everybody knows how to structure a story: beginning, middle and end.
That follows a simple pattern found in the natural and fabricated worlds – roots then trunk and branches, foundations then walls and roof.
Fiction writers and moviemakers revel in mixing this neat order up, starting near the end like in Pulp Fiction, or flashing back-and-forward like in Birdsong.
But when it comes to writing, particularly in the non-fiction style and topics we consider in the business world, the structure tends to be straightforward.
After all, we are dealing in facts and figures and experiences rather than flights of the imagination.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Play with your business writing
In his seminal book on writing and editing – Draft No. 4 – John McPhee states that “the approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner”.
Seems easy. Until McPhee says, “All I had to do was put them in order. What order?”
When writers talk about structure, it’s mostly to do with the order things happen.
By playing with the order, we can create new meanings and insights.
Just because something is factual doesn’t mean it’s immune from this kind of treatment.
McPhee is famously literature-like with his factual stories, and that all comes down to playing around with the structure to create new shapes and styles.
Start at the end
One of the easiest ways to play with the structure of your story is to invert it.
When imparting a lesson, the usual thing is to save the kernel of knowledge for the end, like the punch line of a joke with everything building to that point.
If you start with the lesson, it opens up a new way of explanation that still allows you to tell the story, but from a different angle.
For example, a company wanting to explain the brilliant year it’s had for sales could tell the story in a straightforward way, explaining the ups and downs then delivering the good news.
A more effective structure would be to talk about the high sales at the very beginning, capturing the audience’s attention.
The business choices that were made, leading to the positive outcome, can then be explained against the example. This will create a more compelling structure.
Good story is good story
In a library there’s a general split between fiction and non-fiction.
We tend to think of these areas of writing as vastly different worlds, because one is real and the other made up.
But really, the only binary with writing worth considering is between compelling and boring.
Compelling stories are structured to suck the reader in and keep them going. Boring stories don’t consider the reader at all.
By playing with structure in our business writing, we can tell a more compelling story, adapting techniques from the literary world to the factual.
The trap with factual writing is to adhere to the notion that because it’s real it can’t be fantastic.
Shelve that notion and craft engaging stories – even if it is business writing.
ESPECIALLY if you’re writing about your business.