Word count: 660
Estimated reading time: 6-7 minutes
Image by Rishi Menon
The story structure
In last week’s post we talked about organising documents using a story structure, specifically
1. Start with a familiar, stable situation.
2. Include more background information.
3. Add an unfamiliar element or a problem that makes the original situation
4. Go through how the instability was (or can be) dealt with – how problems were
(or could be) overcome.
5. Finish with the new (or resolved) situation.
Today we’ll focus on a reader-writer dialogue that is based on that structure—and how this dialogue will grab your reader’s attention and keep them engaged in the ‘conversation’.
Grab your reader’s attention
When children hear the magical words ‘Once upon a time…’ they stop whatever they’re doing, look up and perk their ears. When people at work read the first words in a business report or email . . . well, they usually don’t want to continue reading.
Unless…the writer of that report or memo knows who their readers are and what will interest them.
Not all children like fairy tales. Not all enjoy science fiction, or mysteries or action stories. Likewise, readers at work have their own interests. It might be about how to do things more efficiently or how to reduce costs. It might be about how to get promoted or how to achieve work-life balance.
As a writer, your job is to know what those interests are! Otherwise, you’ll never grab their attention.
And this is why the first stage of the TASTE process – THINK – is so important. It’s where you think about your reader’s interests, your purpose for writing, the action the reader needs to take and the details you need to include to support those three things.
While you’re going through the THINK stage, decide how you can open your document so that it will get your reader’s attention. How you can write a purpose statement that will be the equivalent of ‘once upon a time’ for your specific reader? What will make them stop what they’re doing and pay attention?
Keep readers engaged
If you’ve ever read a story to children, you know that they will often do more than just sit there and listen quietly. They’ll ask you questions – ‘Then what happened, Mommy?’ If you stop for more than a few seconds to take a breath, they’ll say, ‘Don’t stop, don’t stop!’
What’s going on here?
Two things. First, the story is interesting [see comments above]. Second, the listener is also engaging in a dialogue with the reader/storyteller.
Ideally, that’s what happens with your readers at work.
The dialogue between reader and writer
Engaged readers may not actually speak aloud as they read. But they’ll be ‘asking’ questions and ‘interjecting’ comments. They’ll want to know that the unstable situation was resolved, that the problems have been dealt with, that the hero won. After all, they want everyone to ‘live happily ever after’ (ie, get stuff done at work, earn money and get out of the office on time).
If your ‘dialogue’ anticipates the questions in your reader’s mind—and the order they will probably ask them—you’ll be able to keep their attention. They’ll keep reading to the end of the story.
How to plan your dialogue
When you’re getting ready to write a document – especially a long business report – try to talk about your ideas with someone else. Ask a friend or colleague to meet with you to discuss the issue you need to write about. Take notes, and in particular, write down all the questions you and your colleague ask each other. This will be a very good start to organising your document, based on a natural question-and-answer discussion.
If you don’t have someone to talk with about your report, or if you’re too pressed for time, then you can hold a ‘conversation’ with yourself. It’s best if you do this aloud – so I suggest you find a spot where you’re alone so people around you don’t think you’re crazy!