Strolling down a particularly quiet neighbourhood with my family one day, we stopped at a sudden commotion. Many people had gathered and as we walked further to see what it was all about, we realised that a film shooting was going on.
The shot: Three police vehicles comes to a halt with a screech!
The cameraman shouted, ‘Cut!’ which meant they had to do it again. We waited for a bit and in that, I heard the screech as many times as the ‘cut!’ Seventeen times to be exact. Apparently, the vehicles were to stop and screech with precision at precisely the same time and until that happened, the director and the cameraman made the drivers repeat the sequence seventeen times.
On the way home, we discussed that this scene would probably occupy less than a minute in the whole two and half hour movie. And chances were, that no one would notice it. However, I had a strong feeling that the craftsmen understood the impact the scene would make, knew exactly what they wanted and didn’t stop till they got it. As a rule when I watch movies I always notice these high impact scenes that make or break a story and wonder how many re-takes to get that perfect.
In our jobs we are the writer, reviewer, editor and story-teller all rolled into one. Here are some must-haves for a compelling story when you are writing one:
Akin to movie making, in Corporate Communications also we are in the business of creating narratives and storytelling for our brands and stakeholders. That’s why in communications, we are often obsessed with a perfect word or a perfect sentence. One that no one would probably read twice but without which, the whole narrative hollows out. I read Kane and Abel when I was in school and I found a sentence that I noted down in my ‘perfect sentences’ notebook. It said, ‘The young boy who was hunting rabbits in the forest was not sure whether it had been the woman’s last cry or the child’s first that alerted him.’ Just by the manner it is constructed, the sentence implies that a lot of things happened in the forest that day. The sentence is concise, clear and has a high impact to Jeffery Archer’s bestseller. Quite similar to ‘Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realised it when caught by her charm …’ or ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ We had no google then or intellectual societies to talk to, and yet I knew when I read them that these sentences were classics and could make-or-break the story.
I realised I wanted to perfect editing as my own craft when my boss in my first job handed me a story to edit. He told me to use ‘track change mode’, which often takes ‘red’ fonts when you edit. By the end of the editing, which I thoroughly enjoyed, the story was a quarter of the original in length, the grammar was fixed, sentences were shorter and the document was red all over. I thought I had done a great job until he said that my edits would ‘offend’ the writer especially since it was by an employee who was trying to talk about his pet project, that the essence of the story was lost and the fact that it didn’t fit the required number of words! I discovered that there is more to editing in communications than just, editing!
But first, create the narrative
- Hear it from the horse’s mouth: In my experience, even if you are handed the draft, interview the author. You want to hear the unrestrained story, told with passion and revelations which could add to a rich narrative. The plus is this will also help build rapport with key experts and that’s where your content comes from. The clarity of thought comes out when we speak to each other, it becomes ‘our brand story’ and less are the chances of offending the person.
- Search for the hook and key messages: Your expertise as a comms person will help in bringing out the strength of the story, which sometimes the draft completely lacks. The subject expert focuses on the subject but your skill picks the hook or a different angle that creates a compelling narrative. Sometimes the story has less to do with the product or the service and more to do with people, challenges or market disruption.
- Understanding the jargon. Or is it a keyword?: We have to remember that we are now in the ‘digital era’. Which means sometimes a technical jargon could actually be a trending technology and therefore a keyword. We have to keep abreast of new technologies, new terms, new grammar and even adjectivised nouns.
It can be quite stressful to be a perfectionist especially since there are deadlines to meet. If you work on perfecting your craft, it gets easier over time. Afterall, a great narrative is your handiwork.