Finding the Story Part 2: The Hook, The Core

In the first blog in this series I talked about the narrative definition of story – the story as a tale – with a beginning, a middle and an end, a plot.

I talked about the idea of seven universal plots, reinforcing the idea that stories are able to connect us because they are so familiar: there are, after all, so few of them.

This time I want to get more specific about the idea of the story in business writing and what it means. This goes more to the journalistic definition of story. A hard-nosed, punchy, shorthand, news item which conveys something that has happened or should happen.

Story in this sense means the hook, the core. The heart of what you want to say, distilled to a singular (and interesting) essence, with no extraneous detail, colour or frills.

It hooks the reader in and makes them want to read more. It’s the core essence of what you want to say.

The story as summary

This is easier said than done. It is not straightforward to achieve such ambitions in a few words, even for the best writers. This is why the best and most talented commercial copywriters, the ones who come up with the most memorable advertising slogans, are few and well-paid.

Still, we can try, and should.

In business there are other words you can use as alternatives, just to help you intuit what story means in the business context. Some of these might be just as good as the word ‘story’, in fact. It depends on the format you’re using.

I mentioned some of these words in my last blog: words like ‘summary’, ‘synopsis’, ‘message’, ‘narrative’ or ‘pitch’.

Whichever word you use, story is the central idea to have constantly in your mind when writing. If another word suits you better, and helps you visualise the essence of what you are trying to say – the core of your message – use that instead.

The elevator pitch

The elevator pitch is a time-honoured device for making an impact. Originating from Hollywood movie-making legend, it is shorthand for an unexpected 30-second pitch opportunity. It’s a chance for you as a writer or producer to make your point – your pitch – to a high-profile movie executive, given their undivided attention on an elevator journey.

The notion that such a pitch has ever been made in an actual elevator is probably apocryphal. Nevertheless, it is a powerful idea. This is why it has been adopted by so many people in so many professions as shorthand for a short, singular, persuasive and fascinating message which has real impact.

In other words, a story.

The elevator pitch is an interesting construct that it pays to come back to; admittedly, it is an overused term in business nowadays, but it still has power and value in business writing, especially in financial services. Most written content in financial services writing is looking to achieve some kind of impact; such as:

  • Say something about the writer
  • Persuade about an idea
  • Convince about a person
  • Sell a product
  • Build support
  • Obtain funding or investment for a project.

Questions to think about

Business writing is all about impact and credibility. From the standpoint of the person making the elevator pitch, it needs both to have an impact on the recipient, and to be credible to them. The parallels are strong.

There is plenty of advice available about crafting an elevator pitch, much of it to do with hiring or investment: why you should hire me or invest in my idea.

There is also guidance on creating elevator pitches that would take a whole day stuck in the elevator to get through. This does not work. The whole point of an elevator pitch is it has got to be short: your target might get out of the elevator on the next floor.

There is no template or typology for this process, and there are as many styles of elevator pitch as there are pitchers. However, some of the elements you might consider are best thought of as questions:

  • What is the problem that you are going to solve?
  • How are you going to solve it?
  • Why are you the best person in the world to solve it?
  • What is it that makes your proposal so interesting?
  • Why is it so well-suited to your target’s needs?

Without interest your pitch is doomed; the more tailored it is to your target’s needs, the better.

Coming back to story

The elevator pitch is really nothing more than a mindset, a thinking habit. A way of training yourself to summarise the essential and most interesting elements that you plan to write about in advance of writing them. It is a way of preparing yourself to make a credible impact in interesting words: in short, a story.

Your story, like a great novel, can start in lots of different ways.

It can grab attention, gaining your reader’s interest before moving on to the substance: the problem and your solution.

Or it can start with humour, something personal and human, before summarising the benefits of your solution in terms of your target’s needs and situation.

Or it can highlight a conflict, explaining the impact of that conflict, and ending with your solution.

There are many ways of building a story. Did you notice, though, how all these approaches mentioned ‘your solution’? That is the common element. In business writing your story will almost always include something about the solution you provide, while at the same time demonstrating your impact, credibility and passion.

Examples

Because the main sector I work in is financial services, here a few examples of specific elevator pitches you might find in financial services:

The financial adviser:

I love working with people to help them overcome their money stresses, make better financial decisions, and save towards their financial goals. I meet all my clients regularly to ensure they are on track. My clients say they are happier and have a more carefree lifestyle without stress. They know they have an adviser they can trust.

The business start-up:

I’m looking for £100,000 of investment. One of my main clients is planning to increase his orders by 25% over the next year, and we need to upgrade our equipment so we can accept this opportunity. After 10 years working together for ABC Co. we saw a gap in the market and we’ve doubled our turnover in the last year. Can we meet next week so I can tell you more?

The insurance agent:

I do exciting things in a not very exciting industry – insurance – working with business owners to help them manage risk. I recently worked with one client who owns properties in ABC town. She needed to protect her assets and reduce her liabilities. Insurance can be boring and daunting, but it needn’t be if your adviser has the right skills and understands your needs.

In the final instalment in this series next time we’ll look at some practical techniques for finding the story: including using that much-maligned social media device – the tweet.