Telling a better story is a challenge for all of us, and in business it can be what separates the good from the great. Luke Clark looks at a host of ways that we can all re-find our inner storyteller — and learn some of the tips and tricks that everyday writers use to get their stories into match-ready shape

My relationship with writing is complicated. As someone who’s been a journalist and editor for longer than I can believe, I know that narrative is not something you ever perfect — and nor does it ever get easy. By abandoning both expectations, you give yourself permission to have fun with it.

Writing remains one of the things in my life that continues to give back to me whatever I’ve put in, and more. Through a lifelong obsession with story, I’ve been able to gain a deeper appreciation of who I am and why I’m here. Through writing in my own unique and at times frustrating way, then later through editing many thousands of words, I’ve become a much better reader. Which is ultimately the biggest gift of all.

One thing that surprises me in my third decade as a professional writer is how much I now enjoy passing on my love of storytelling. This was not something I had expected — as a young writer I was far more centred on extending my own skillsets than helping others with theirs.

I now enjoy the tasks that involve passing on the torch, even in a small way. Sometimes that means collaborative ghost writing for business leaders. At others, helping a regional team develop brand narrative skills. More recently, it has meant designing and running a course to help team leaders feel more at ease with their own narrative craft.

At its best, storytelling is about solving puzzles — and for me now, the thrill lies just as much in passing on the tricks and tools as it does in labouring over them myself. If you see yourself as someone with an interest in telling better stories yet frequently avoid doing so, hopefully these tips can help you push on with your own story projects.

Tip 1 — Don’t start at the start

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

It is the first line of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. You can see why readers were hooked. The best novels of our time have unforgettable first lines — portraying a newness yet immediacy that pulls you in and demands you read on.

Don’t be fooled though. Even the best writers are cursed at times by the demon blank page. And because none of us can’t afford to wait for inspiration, we seldom expect to master the beginning of a piece as our very first act. Instead, you learn to start to write from somewhere, anywhere within your piece first — discovering as you do so where your story will eventually take you.

Writing is about being deliberate from the outset, and this includes doing whatever it takes to get your initial momentum. As such, there is no shame in the brain-dump. Get your first barrage of ideas down first, as many of them as you can, before attempting an edit.

If you can get through at least 500 words or so in that first blast, you will likely discover the tone of your piece — and better understand its beginning and end. And even if you delete half of it, you’ll be warmed up. The just getting started will be far more productive than waiting an eternity for a mythical flash of inspiration.

Tip 2 — Speak your story

Another thing I tell reluctant writers, is that stories come in many forms — written is just one of them. If you are a successful executive, you likely already deliver your ideas in a perfectly readable package, thanks to the spoken word. You can make use of this inbuilt skill.

Many of us have a ‘filter’ when it comes to writing, inherited from well-meaning yet over-prescriptive teachers. Given we often learn writing by way of formal composition, the tone we adopt for a lawyer’s letter say, is one that many of us find hard to shake.

The best functional writing today is the type that reads as spoken word, free of any frills. A good trick to fast-track your next writing piece is therefore to speak it first. Dictate your idea into a handphone recorder — ideally with the transcription function switched on. You’ll likely end up with a serviceable first draft to get you started, with a structure that flows easily from one idea to the next. It reads as naturally as if you’ve spoken it — because you have.

Tip 3 — Learn to zoom in

He stands at edge of the cliff. All that exists is the breeze at his face and the sound of his heart pumping. Now is the time.

By starting with a central character in a precarious situation, delivered in present tense, we have an immediacy of focus — and several questions left unanswered. By ‘zooming in’ our focus to the here and now, you create a ‘hook’, a moment that will clearly place your readers in a scene, urging them to dive deeper.

This zooming-in technique is attained through a few different means. Sometimes you can achieve the same ‘lock’ by honing in on a striking idea that’s expressed in an odd way. Consider the first lines of cyclist Tyler Hamilton’s narrative in his book The Secret Race.

I’m good at pain.

I know that sounds strange but it’s true. In every other area of life, I’m an average person.

This is a smart use of narrative technique to draw the reader in, using a sharp yet universal detail that describes Hamilton’s endurance. When you consider that the book is an exposé of the covert Tour de France drug-taking led by infamous leader Lance Armstrong, we also discover that being ‘good at pain’ has a barbed double-meaning.

In business writing, speeches or blogs, the beginning of any story is your most important real estate — it defined the space within which readers will choose to stay or go.

To borrow a journalism term, don’t bury your lead. Play on the most ‘hooky’ aspects of your piece at the very beginning, taking people deep into the story right away. Nail the beginning successfully, and you’re already halfway there.

Tip 4 — A sympathetic reader

Whether you’re the boss of the company or its newest arrival, no written piece should ever be sent externally until at least one other person has read it. Basic mistakes happen all the time, and the creator of a content piece is never its best editor.

Even for top novelists, a masterpiece is typically a two-person process. Both writer and editor are intrinsic to the process. The best editors ‘serve the story’ by sharpening the narrative — yet never drastically change how it behaves.

A bad editor can do a lot of damage — so once you find a sympathetic reader, treat them kindly. The writer-editor relationship is a bond of trust, and one from which great things are made.

Tip 5 — Your storytelling journey

Despite all the best ideas and theory, no writing advice will sink in unless you’ve applied it yourself — then discovered first-hand some alternative routes from those who’ve critiqued your piece.

My Art of Storytelling course is an example of such a process in motion. Over a fun-yet-intense five-week Zoom program, the storytelling principles above, and numerous others are explored and workshopped. We learn and apply everything ranging from first lines and lens work, through to digesting and applying storytelling’s most timeless archetypes, such as Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’. There’s even a few pro-tips for editing too.

Together with a group of fellow course-mates, the program provides invaluable first-hand exposure to the tricks and techniques of fellow writers. Most importantly for you, it begins with a clear yet empowering assumption.

You are already a storyteller — if you weren’t, you would not be as successful as you are today. Our job over five weeks is to explore new ways to apply the narrative tools you already possess — and learn some new approaches along the way.

Buying into this idea, you will start to understand better how to harness your storytelling strengths, and work past your unique challenges. Importantly, you’ll start to relax into storytelling — accepting that perfection is never an option. Once you’re willing to let go, and even fail a few times? That’s when the magic really begins.

Fancy joining me on a storyteller’s journey? Click here for more details.