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What does your corporate presentation have in common with War and Peace?

Plenty, actually. The goal of any storyteller is to grab the audience’s attention and maintain it from beginning to end. Your techniques will be different from Tolstoy’s (1,225 pages might be a little on the long side, for example), but there’s plenty you can learn from the world of fiction. 

Here are five lessons from fiction writing that you can use to tell better stories in your work life.

1. Nobody cares about your story

It sounds harsh, but it’s the first key to telling a good story. Assume that nobody cares about what you have to say, and find out what you can do to make them care. Get inside the head of a typical member of your audience, and brainstorm about what would make that person sit up and pay attention. Then give it to them, from the first sentence to the last, remembering you could lose them at any moment.

2. Story-telling is a process of subtraction, not addition

If your story doesn’t feel clear, the impulse is always to add something, some extra nugget of information or explanation.

Resist that impulse.

The best way to make your story clearer is almost always to remove something. As an expert in your subject, you’ll naturally put in far more information than your audience can absorb. So slash and burn. Maybe you won’t make as many points, but your audience will pay attention to the points you do make.

3. Good stories have a strong plot with a human dimension

Think of a novel, any novel. 

Chances are, it involves human beings overcoming challenges. We’re hard-wired to pay attention to that stuff. We’ve been doing it since the days of sitting around the cave-fire talking about killing woolly mammoths.

And yet most business documents do their very best to erase any trace of this. We can’t admit that we faced challenges, because that might mean acknowledging that we did something wrong in the first place. 

Take a chance, expose your weaknesses and your humanity, and your story will instantly be ten times more compelling.

4. Good stories are specific, not general

As we’re listening to a story, we try to paint pictures in our minds. We instinctively latch onto specific details, and don’t pay attention to abstractions.

Journalists know this. They spice up dull stories about government budgets with quotes and stories from the people affected by the politicians’ decisions. 

Novelists know it too. Tolstoy began War and Peace with a sharply observed scene in a drawing room, not with abstractions about the nature of war. 

Most business presenters don’t know this. You can use that to your advantage.

5. Good story-tellers use clear language

There’s a common misconception that, in order to sound more business-like, you have to change plain English words into long, formal words. 

That’s utter nonsense. It’s a remnant of a more formal age. Remember when people had a special voice for speaking on the telephone? Nobody does that any more. And nobody should use stuffy, formal expressions in their writing either.

Write a presentation as if you’re explaining something to your best friend, and watch your audience’s eyes light up in sudden comprehension, relief, and gratitude.

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