I was hooked just two minutes into the podcast. A renowned cancer specialist revealed that, although his book had won the Pulitzer Prize, he knew next to nothing about the discipline of writing. “So out of necessity,” he told Alan Alda, “I created my own rules. First: You can’t go six pages without meeting a real human character.”
While still listening to the podcast, I drove straight to the nearest Barnes and Noble, bought the book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, returned home, and began reading. Every six pages. I started to count.
When I work with people in business or in non-profits on how to incorporate story into their more technical communications, I sometimes hear: “Jenny, I don’t have time to tell a story. I’ve got to get right to the facts or they’ll tune me out. Besides, I don’t have any stories to tell.”
If Dr. Mukherjee can turn the 4,000-year-old history of cancer into what is considered one of the most accessible and relevant science books ever written, then maybe it’s time to re-think how to storify your next written work or presentation.
Here are three ways to incorporate storytelling into your dry or technical communications:
1) Get personal.
The first ingredient of a good story is to have a relatable character. What makes Mukherjee’s history of cancer so readable is that he makes it all personal and intimate through the use of stories with real characters.
In the first sentence on the first page we encounter Carla Reed, a thirty-three-year-old kindergarten teacher from Ipswich, Massachusetts, a mother of three young children, who wakes up in bed one morning with a sort of numbness in her head that instantly tells her something is wrong. Overnight, her life is upended when she discovers she has leukemia.
Her question to Dr. Mukherjee spurs the writing of his 470-page book: “What is it specifically that I’m battling?” Mukherjee realizes that to effectively answer her, he has to take a highly technical subject and explain it in an accessible and meaningful way.
That’s where his rule—you can’t go six pages without meeting a real human character—emerges.
That character might be Mukherjee himself sitting in the lab one evening thinking about something. That character might be his cousin suffering from schizophrenia in an institution in Calcutta, or it might be a scientist whose life you didn’t really know about.
2) Don’t cut the details.
A few vivid details can be more persuasive than a barrage of facts or statistics, and they’re what make your story stick.
In the case of Carla Reed, Mukherjee relays the story of walking into her hospital room after she was diagnosed:
“When I arrived, she was sitting with peculiar calm on her bed, a schoolteacher jotting notes. Her mother, red-eyed and tearful, just off an overnight flight, burst into the room and then sat silently in a chair by the window, rocking forcefully.”
A few key words can excite a little emotion in your audience, and emotion makes things memorable.
It can be tempting to cut details for expediency or because you feel they are too personal for the situation. But why tell something you think is important if you don’t want people to remember it?
3) Create a moment.
All big stories have tiny, human moments within them. A moment in a story is a specific point in space or time that serves to narrow the focus of an otherwise big story.
In chapter two, we meet Sidney Farber. Farber would go on to become a pioneer in the treatment for childhood leukemia. But on a December morning in 1947, we find him impatiently waiting for a parcel from New York.
It’s as if the camera goes in for a close-up. In this moment, we are with him as he finds the package waiting in his laboratory:
“As he tore it open, pulling out the glass vials of chemicals, he scarcely realized that he was throwing open an entirely new way of thinking about cancer.”
Suddenly, we’re as curious as Farber about what the contents of this package will unveil; we experience the parallel feelings of excitement and, perhaps, trepidation.
That’s what a moment does. It takes us from the general to the specific, from the too vague and high level to something compelling. A moment makes us care.
Story breathes life into your words.
As I sat reading just past midnight on that first day after buying the book, the room lit only by the lamp next to the couch where I read, I had stopped counting every six pages—he had most certainly achieved his goal.
Instead, I thought about my dad who had recently died of cancer. I thought about Carla Reed, Muhkerjee’s schoolteacher and mother of three, who had beaten leukemia. And I thought about how a novice writer had become a masterful storyteller through the use of real characters, specific details, and compelling moments.
Muhkerhjee’s prize-winning book reminds us that storytelling is accessible to anyone. It’s the great connector, no matter your industry or business, no matter how technical or dry your subject matter. It is the thing that will make you and your organization irresistible.