The truth about true stories

People are too complex to have just one truth. Everyone’s truth is malleable depending on who’s telling it and why.

What does this mean for your integrity as a writer?

I believe a skilled writer, much like a skilled counselor, can work with sources to share their story in a way that is true to them and about them while at the same time nailing the particular communication purpose at hand.

This juggling act is an important skill for those of us on the softer news, public relations side of the communications business. There is power in what we say and how we say it, that should never be underestimated. And it should always be a part of strategy conversations.

If you aren’t sure you can believe that, you should watch this short video. “The Power of Words” is an amazing piece created to promote Andrea Gardner’s book Change your Words, Change your World. It illustrates the importance of framing someone’s truth to match the communication objective.

It’s worth the two minutes it will take you to see it.

I write a number of feature stories about successful people. When I do so, I have communication goals, but it is also imperative that the stories I write are truthful.

Typically, I offer the people I write about the opportunity to review the article before it gets published.

If that shocks anyone’s journalistic sensibilities, let me remind you that I’m not a reporter for the Washington Post or The Detroit Free Press or even a weekly tabloid. I write for Michigan State University. So my sources for success stories are our faculty, alumni, donors and friends, which means I am free, if not compelled, to involve them.

Does that mean my stories are any less true than those written by news reporters?

As a third grade child, I had to learn the difference between an autobiography and a biography. My third grade self was sure that the truest story would be an autobiography. How could someone else know a person better than they know themselves I innocently reasoned?

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In my idealistic youth years, I sided with the biographers and thought any autobiography was self-indulgent at best, probably a bore and certainly not the whole truth.

Turns out the truth—especially when set down in writing—is a bit trickier.

When I was fresh from J-school, the thought of allowing a source to review your story was something I thought of as a harsh reality in public relations. Though, I probably kept quiet most of the time and hoped my sources wouldn’t insist. Then, felt violated if they did but, shamefully, relieved if they spotted an inaccuracy.

Not surprisingly, most people want things that are written about them to mirror the story that they would tell about themselves. I can’t always do that depending on my objectives, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who wanted me to lie.

In fact, I could never really reflect anyone’s internal self even if I wanted to. No matter how much time I spend with someone, I can’t live in his or her head.

All this is less about preserving some idea about journalistic integrity and more about portraying someone authentically while at the same time crafting a message that helps your organization. That takes time, trust and finesse.

Telling my sources upfront that they can see what I write before it goes out into the world instills trust. It’s concrete evidence that they are not being used, that I actually care about them. It helps them talk more freely and makes them more willing to let down any walls. Which in turn, can open the door for telling a fuller version of their truth that is consistent with what and how I need to communicate with our audience.

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A couple of years ago, I interviewed a Hollywood producer. When I asked him if he wanted to see what I wrote before publication, he said: “No, whatever you write is what you saw in me, and I wouldn’t want to change that.”

Maybe that was merely a function of his busy life. Or, maybe I’d really won his trust. I’m pretty confident it was neither of those. I think he just understood that his story could be different for different people and he was okay with that.

Career advice blogger Penelope Trunk writes,

“every summary of any part of your life could be a totally different summary as well. And be equally true.”

She knows out that her resume could tell the story of her as a writer. But if she needed to get a job in operations, she could rewrite it to indicate that operations had been her focus for the last fifteen years…without lying. She’d just frame her truth from a different angle.

The man in “The Power of Words” had a message that was true enough but it didn’t work for what he needed. The writer reframed his message for him in way that had impact which is exactly my point.

It’s okay to share the truth that works best for the situation you find yourself in.

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The First Wonder of Writing: Storytelling

I feel I should apologize for the hiatus I’ve taken from this blog. First, I was buried in work and something had to give. Actually a few things had to. But this blog was one of the ones I missed the most.

The work barrage lifted eventually, but then there was this terrible backlog of things that also needed doing—like laundry, preparing for the holidays, enjoying the half dozen yearend concerts and performances my kids were involved in, and going to the dentist.

By the time I felt caught up, I had a strong desire to curl up in front of the fire, crochet myself a snuggie and re-watch the first and second seasons of Downton Abbey and/or play mindless word games, for at least a month.

But now I am refreshed, reenergized and ready to blog like crazy.

So I decided to kick off with a positive spin. A trade publication I get recently ran a “Seven Deadly Sins of Organizational Writing” series.

It’s fun to read and helpful but, the negativity got to me. Don’t we business and organization writers ever do anything right? Have we nothing to celebrate?

And thus came to be this first installment of what I’m calling the Seven Wonders of Writing. To me, there is something pretty inspiring, and yes even wonderful, about the opportunity to tell a story so I’m putting that as he first wonder I’ll write about, because it really is that important.

Bottom line, you want to be read. You want to write well. And moreover, you’ve got something to communicate. With any luck it is something important and meaningful.

But it’s a challenge since each and every one of us speaks our own personal language based on our age, stage, wage, gender, race, education, life experiences, id, ego, baggage, filters and favorite breakfast cereal.

If there’s one thing no one can resist, no matter whether he or she wakes up to fruit loops or oat bran, it is a good story.

Robert McKee, the award winning Hollywood screenwriter, in Story writes that stories are our most prolific art form. Just consider the daily stream of prose, films, shows, broadcasts, online legends, water cooler anecdotes, office sagas, bedtime children’s tales, barroom bragging, social media gossip, and more that we take in each and every day.

Why? McKee says we can’t get enough because stories are the most accessible way we have of trying to answer the ever elusive question of how we should lead our lives. In other words, stories give us insight or as McKee writes:

“(Stories are) but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”

In another life, I was a student teacher in high school English. Teens aren’t an easy audience. I learned quickly that the surest, fastest and most effective way to get every one of those adolescent eyes on me was to tell a true, personal story.

So what gets in the way of telling stories when we write?

Mainly, it takes time. Too much is written from behind a computer screen. To get a great story, you can’t do all the research and interviewing by Internet and phone. You can convey all the essential information very accurately, but you won’t get the story behind the story, the surprising tales that pop up when people relax and get to know one another.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on a family who made a significant gift to further research on autism. It was great news. A nice story. The family lives in my state but on the far side of it, meaning more than an hour’s drive for me, one way. What’s more, the only time they had to talk to me was late on a Friday.

I already had a boatload of material. I could have phoned them for a few additional answers and followed-up with email. I’m glad I didn’t do that.

It wouldn’t have been much of a story. I wouldn’t have heard firsthand about their journey with a grandson with autism. When the grandfather recounted the day he heard his grandson say “Grandpa” for the first time in seven years, the storyteller within me said wow. I’ll never forget it. It’s the kind of detail I know that readers will remember to.

And It might just help someone sort out the anarchy of existence.

Yep, story telling can be pretty wonderful.

Infographics: A scenic overlook for readers

When you’re cruising down a curvy highway at 75 miles an hour in the middle of a long trip, it’s nice to come upon a place where you can pull over for a break.

Anyone in marketing is aware of the demands on people’s time. No matter how fun new media can be, it also adds to the relentless onslaught of information everyone is trying to process. As a result, communicating more rapidly through visuals has never been more important.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I work on a print magazine. Within such a conventional vehicle, it is always a struggle to come up with the right combination of text and graphics to communicate our key messages.

So I always do a “flip test” before putting any publication to bed. Basically I take a final look to see if someone in our target audience didn’t read a single word but simply flipped through and glanced at a few things, would they still get the big picture?

Because I work with an incredibly talented art director the answer is always yes. Invariably, he’s already done a fabulous job with art directing our photography and creating compelling and visually appealing design. I try to do my part with edgy headlines, captions, subheads, pull-out quotes and so on.

But it seems like it is time to step up our game to really engage our increasingly information-fatigued readers. To go beyond the flip test and actually get more of them delving in, really understanding and becoming advocates for our institution.

Recently, that led me to infographics.


What is an infographic?

The best way to explain an infographic is with an infographic.

This is an infographic on infographics from visual.ly which states: “Using Lego blocks and photography we wanted to show that a good infographic is simple and requires very little text.”

 

What is an infographic?


Is this just a trend?

Major publications have featured infographics for decades at least in the forms of pie charts, bell curves, Venn diagrams, bar graphs and the like, as well as in-depth, complex illustration to communicate information that would be unwieldy in text form.

In fact, the concept is anything but new. You could argue that the earliest humans invented infographics when they drew on cave walls.

But infographics have been repurposed in a social media context as profound, creative and absolutely fascinating ways to visualize data.


Where does writing fit in?

While infographics clearly put graphic designers and artists in the lead, the need for good writing and editing will still be an important component.

Marketingprofs.com offers this advice on infographics:

“Edit, edit, edit. Your infographic tells a story, and like any story it benefits from a careful editing process. The end result should be a clear narrative that flows logically from beginning to end.”

So if you were starting to think this infographic stuff has little to do with writers and editors, think again!

Any successful marketing communications should follow a simple three-step process: entertain first, engage second and educate (or sell) last. Done right, infographics can do all of that, becoming a universal language for telling a story with one look.

But that doesn’t mean that clarifying the purpose, researching the content and operationalizing the concept won’t require a good writer/editor.

I liked this infographic on renewable energy by Carrington College which illustrates using a lot more text, but still in a fun, colorful way. Just like the visual.ly one above, they provide the code to make it easy to share/embed their infographic on your own site (And, that’s a good tip for encouraging your constituents to share too.)

Renewable Energy - Infographic

[Via: Carrington College's Renewable Energy Degree Program]


Need more convincing to give infographics a try?

The status quo approach can be a difficult life preserver to sacrifice when one is afloat in a vast, cold ocean, unsure of a new tactic.

Consider that according to Customer Magnetism an internet marketing agency, high quality infographics are 30 times more likely to be read than text articles. Social media experts will tell you that infographics in websites are way more likely to be shared than text. The growing popularity of visual content platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram pretty much confirms that people crave eye candy.

While I know better than to concur with the seemingly popular notion that no one reads anything anymore, I’d have to put on a pair of coke-bottle-thick, rose-colored glasses to believe that people will read everything we put out.


Where to start

Lest you think as a mere writer that you’d have to employ a new graphics team to use infographics, there’s plenty of inspiration on the web as well as plenty of tools for creating your own infographics.

Marketingprofs.com suggests the following for your toolkit:

Many Eyesbuilds infographics based on your data, or on public datasets.

HoHli produces charts with the flexibility to customize their look and feel.

Wordle word cloud generator. You can see an example from yours truly on the about page of this very blog.

The web is also a great place to find tips on creating the best infographics.

But before you go there, you should begin the process with a rough outline of what you want to present. Infographics should answer questions, provide compelling data, or demystify a process. And while an infographic can poke fun, the content must be researched and fact-checked. Not to mention, that you need to know your goal–which should not be simply to produce something cool.

So, that’s what I’ve learned about infographics. My next step is to gain more experience. Let me know what you’ve tried and especially any inspiring examples you create or come upon.

I’ll report back on my progress in a future blog.

I don’t know about you, but giving my audiences and me a chance to pull over to enjoy a scenic overlook sounds pretty good right about now.