How Never to Begin a Blog Post, or… The Most Important Secret of Storytelling

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Delray Beach, Florida.- Should I tell him? Will he listen? Will he feel I’m butting in?

I had just read a company blog post from a colleague. It was an important post. And he was making an important point. I wanted every employee to read it.

But the problem… well…

One of the best ways to begin a blog post (or a speech or an essay) is with a story.

A well-told story will instantly grab the reader’s attention and hold him tight while he discovers (indirectly and without resistance) the idea you want to convey.

This is true only of well-told stories. Badly told stories are perhaps the worst way to begin.

So what is the difference between a well-told and a badly told story?

There are about a dozen. But the first and most important – by far – is that a well-told story begins in the middle.

The above-mentioned blog post began like this:

 I first met David and his wife Jenny in Panama in 2007.

David was from upstate New York but moved to Philadelphia shortly after marrying Jenny over 30 years ago. Other than a business trip to Toronto, he had never been out of the country before.

They were both attending International Living’s “Ultimate Event,” which I was helping run. This was our monster event, gathering all our country experts in one place to help the hundreds of attendees figure out the best places to retire or invest overseas.

We got to chatting over a drink at the welcome cocktail reception, and I soon discovered they were nearing retirement and wanted to know the best country to move to…

 I’m reading it and I’m wondering, “Where is this going?”

If it had been written by someone else, someone I didn’t know, I’d have already put it down. But since it was a colleague and since I knew he wanted to improve his writing skills, I continued reading. And reading. And reading. And wondering when he would get to the point!

Six or seven hundred words later, he wrote:

Knowing your customers is extremely important and seems so obvious….It can help you develop your products and services and craft the right messages to appeal to those customers. It provides a sense of empathy…

Wow! What a long and winding way to get to this idea.

I wrote him this note:

“If you are going to tell a story, begin in the middle, which usually means in the middle of the conflict. (Aristotle called it in medias res.) Give the reader a reason to want to keep reading.

“This is a story meant to illustrate a point you are making about the usefulness of attending live events. So you need to create some conflict around that. You want the reader to know what’s at stake. So he’ll care about it.

“Does this make sense?”

And then I thought I should give him an example of what I meant. I came up with this:

She told me he never attends industry events – especially those where you’re expected to “mingle” with potential customers.

 “I’m running a big business,” she said proudly. “I’ve got deadlines to meet. I’ve got a bottom line worry about. I don’t have time to waste on cocktail parties, making small talk with customers.”

 She seemed very sure of herself and I was her guest so I didn’t want to argue with her. Instead, I put on a sympathetic, non-committal face. 

 When, three years later, her business failed, I was not surprised…

I was hoping he would see how much stronger this is. Not because I’m a better writer. I’m not. But stronger because of the way I started my story.

I didn’t start at the dull beginning with preliminary information the reader might eventually want or need to know. I started with the conflict – in this case, with the protagonist being challenged by a woman making a statement he knows is wrong.

When you begin your story at a scene that represents a core conflict, you accomplish two things:

* You allow your reader to get to the point faster. (In this case, in 90 words rather than 600.) And…

* Even more importantly, you let the reader experience the truth of your idea emotionally before you give him the argument for it rationally.

And did my critique work?

He didn’t respond immediately, so I was a little worried. But the next morning, I received a friendly thank-you. “I’m not going to read Aristotle,” he said. “But, yes, I can see how much stronger it is to begin in medias res.”