In 1978, I was asked to give a series of talks at our church on four consecutive Wednesday evenings. As I was going to be paid for these talks, I decided I needed to fully prepare. I devoured ten books, minimum, wrote down exactly what I would say for each week, and took one year to get ready. I was up for the speaker’s challenge after my stint in Toast Masters. I had visualized the audience being in awe of my speaker prowess.
The first night arrived. I had all my ducks in a row ready to impart all this wisdom, and then proceeded to die 100 deaths when I finally stood up in front of the massive crowd of 50 people. Sweat was pouring off me so badly that I had to take off my drenched jacket. My glasses had fogged up so that I could not even see the pages of notes, much less read them. My stomach was in civil war mode, and I was counting the seconds to when I could exit off that stage, and promptly refund everyone’s money!
I had neglected the most important part of giving any presentation. I had forgotten to start with a story; a story about myself where I spoke of an experience relating to what I was about to teach.
Thank goodness! After what seemed like a very long 10 minutes, in reality only 60 seconds, one of my friends in the audience came to my rescue. “Jack, tell us the story of how you dealt with this issue when you were growing up in North Dakota”. In that moment, that man was my guardian angel! It was what I needed to get back on track, and I went on to relate various stories that evening, and throughout the course of the four weeks. Even so, the memory of my discomfort that evening is easily remembered.
I had been in Toast Masters for five years before, and had even learned the imperative of telling a personal story in your seven-minute talk. But all that went out the window when I realized I was going to be paid for a presentation. I was so nervous, I had forgotten even the basics of speaking to an audience, much less wowing them!
Giving a speech, writing a speech and writing an article is much the same process. Never try to make a point in an article without telling a story, and never tell a story in your article without making a significant point.
In 1971, I received a phone call during dinner, and my eight-year old daughter, Lorrie, answered the phone. She said it was long distance, and as I picked up the phone, there on the other end of the line was a voice, “Hi Jack, this is Charlie Tremendous Jones”. Now I had just read Charlie’s book, Life is Tremendous, and I didn’t really believe the voice, so I asked, “No, who is this really?!” Once again, he stated he really was Charlie Tremendous, and went on to inform me that he was heading for Hawaii to give a speech, had a two-hour layover in Seattle, and wanted to join me for breakfast. It was the most tremendous two hours I had spent in a long, long time.
I ended up hiring Charlie to speak to all my managers and employees at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlours. During his presentations, Charlie constantly was telling stories to drive home each of his points. Even if you remembered nothing of his main points, you would remember the stories, and eventually the impact of his message through the stories would begin to sink in.
After all these years, I have drilled in my mind Charlie’s words which he would repeat at least 4 – 5 times in every talk: Never make a point without telling a story, and never tell a story without making a point.
Hopefully by now, you are starting to get the ‘point’ of this article. A good newspaper article always starts with a story about a person or a family to grab your attention. The Wall Street Journal has been practicing this simple formula for years, and they are masters. “Yesterday, Joe Smith went to his mailbox only to find a foreclosure notice giving him one month to come up with the money or the bank takes over his mortgage”. There usually follows some information about his family, his job that he lost, and so forth. Well, by then, you’re hooked! Now, you have to go to page 6 to find out about all the other Joe Smiths across the country and how they are dealing with the same issue, and then, finally at the end, you read about the statistics. Now, if instead of the personal story, the article had opened with the statistics, and the general information of all the other Joe Smiths across the country, the article would never have been read by as many people. Individual readers connect with the story of that one person, and that’s what peaks their interest and keeps them reading further.
- Always begin your article with a story grabber to hook your reader.
- Invest as much time in writing the opening paragraph as you do on the rest of the article.
- Make your story one that the majority of readers can connect with, and not soon forget in the near future. One helpful way to do this is to integrate as many specifics as possible, both emotional and sensory. When your reader can make a connection with either a physical and/or emotional experience in their own life, chances are they will read that article through to the last word.
Good luck and good storytelling!