My favorite part of John Hughes’ buddy comedy “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” comes when the Steve Martin character finally reaches his wits’ end with the annoyingly chatty travel companion played by John Candy. Not only is the scene an example of great writing, but it also offers valuable reminders about great writing that our Dallas marketing firm applies as it works to engage audiences.
In the scene, the Martin character, Neal Page, berates hapless Del Griffith for his “boring stories” about himself, full of pointless and irrelevant anecdotes. “Didn’t you notice on the plane when you started talking, eventually I started reading the vomit bag?” Neal screams. “Didn’t that give you some sort of clue, like maybe this guy is not enjoying it? Y'know, not everything is an anecdote. You have to discriminate! You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing! You’re a miracle! Your stories have none of that! They're not even amusing accidentally!”
Then comes the final, humiliating kick in the gut for poor Del: “And, you know, when you're telling these little stories, here's a good idea: Have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”
The monologue ends with several seconds of silence as the camera settles on Del’s heartbreaking dejection. My point here, of course, is this: In writing for your company or brand, don’t be Del Griffith.
Writing Process Begins with Engagement Goal
In sitting down to write anything – blog entry, white paper or even a PowerPoint presentation – your essential goal is the same: to engage an audience. Engagement starts with the obvious: a decent command of the language, good grammar and common usage. Lack those things and an audience will sharply discount whatever message you impart.
But the most important thing you can bring to the writing process is your own discretion – what characters, anecdotes or ideas you include, which you leave on the cutting-room floor and how you structure the order of those things that remain. So when constructing your next blog post, try to keep these things in mind:
1. Have a point, and get to it quickly -- This seems like a no-brainer, but I’m always surprised by the amount of meandering, pointless writing I come across in my day-to-day web foraging. So much of the work produced by Internet marketing firms causes me to give up after two or three paragraphs. I simply don’t understand why I’m reading it quickly enough, and so I move on. Know and speak directly to your audience’s needs.
2. Stick with what’s relevant -- One of the most important things I learned as a newspaper editor is the ruthless chore of chopping great material out of stories to make them better. Often, a reporter would have gathered blockbuster facts or quotes for a story, but because they weren’t relevant, they detracted from the main point. Resist the urge to include the kitchen sink every time you write. It’s not relevant, and you’ll just get everyone wet.
3. Make your story follow an arc -- Just like any other work of art – film, book, poem, opera, rock ballad, it doesn’t matter – whatever you create needs a beginning, middle and end. You need – no, the reader needs – structure to navigate your argument. Again, think like a film editor: In scenes. Open with an unforgettable scene, image or anecdote that distills the essence of what you want to say (see: Be relevant, above) and sets your plot into motion.
Next, lay out your plot points neatly, and then tackle each one in some logical order. Lastly, bring your story to conclusion by recapping the main idea. With a properly structure story arc, the reader is able to easily follow your argument and is more likely to stick with you to the end.
4. Focus on the audience, not yourself -- You know that guy at the cocktail party who bores everyone to tears with stories about himself? The one people avoid like the plague? Yeah, that guy. Don’t be that guy. We know you’re pretty neat, but try instead to focus on the listener and his needs. What information can you provide that he will find not merely useful but so irresistibly interesting that he’ll want to share with friends? That’s where you want to keep your focus. Pretty soon, you’ll be the guy at the party who draws a crowd.
So, the next time you run across “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” think about poor Del Griffith and ask yourself: Is my audience being engaged or is it reaching for the vomit bag?