Waffle. Ramble. Repetition. Pointlessness. These are clear signs that your narrative spine is out of balance, causing pain, stiffness, floundering, disorientation and even nausea in your body copy.
Narrative spine is more obvious in multi-page documents like brochures and white papers, where each section is a vertebrae in the overall structure (over-arching story). However, the same metaphor can be applied to a one page, long form piece such as articles, web copy and blog posts. And that’s what we will focus on here.
Between the first impression (headline, opening hook line and introduction paragraph) and the last impression (the conclusion) there is the substantiation section. This is where you talk about the features and benefits that support the claim or point you make in the story’s opening words. These substantiation sentences are what make for a compelling enough argument that persuades your reader to buy in to your point-of-view or proposition.
And just like sections in a brochure, these substantiation sentences make up the back bone that connects the head (introduction paragraph) with the legs (conclusion). Whether you write this (torso) section in prose or bullet points, the order you arrange the substantiation points (vertebrae) shows us how much authority, direction and control you have over the subject. These three attributes are determined by narrative logic — the most fitting arrangement of the vertebrae (substantiation points) in the narrative spine (substantiation paragraphs).
While we all judge quality content in terms of ideas, writerly verve, and the ten principles of clear writing¹, narrative logic is often overlooked in the conversation. Perhaps because we tend to be too lenient about structure; as long as the key points are made, who cares which order they come in, right?
Never underestimate the conscious, and especially sub-conscious, decisions your reader makes about your piece (and its author). I started taking this more seriously after doing some research a few years ago on the hospitality and restaurant industry. Andrew Freeman², a professional consultant on the subject, revealed that we make decisions about the slightest thing (stain on the menu = kitchen is dirty; the lighting makes your skin look good = hotel manager is attentive). These decisions are not always fully conscious.
What’s more, we tend to focus on the wrong more than the right. Even if five things go right, it only takes one thing to go wrong for us to be left with a predominantly negative impression. Ever read three good reviews followed by a bad review in TripAdvisor making you have second thoughts about that hotel?
So too in writing. Especially when you’re copywriting, where the audience is reluctant and impatient. One bad move in the logical flow of the argument can be like that “stain on the menu”.
Stage One of building a strong narrative spine: List all the key points.
If you sensibly start with a communication brief, you will have already listed the key points in the Reasons to Buy-In section. But if you’re rewriting an existing piece, then you extract and list all the key points mentioned in the existing draft. Either way, here are the three stages in designing and building a strong back bone for your story:
To avoid the stain in the menu effect, the key points must follow logically from one point to the next. This can be sequential (a, b, c …) cause and effect (this leads to that leads to this …) or in order of importance (inverted pyramid style). Most of the time it’s cause and effect, like in the following example of a blog post on Bob Massey visiting Australia to give a talk on Life After Fossil Fuels: Toward a Low Carbon Economy.
Listing all the facts, stats, virtues, points:
Stage Two of building a strong narrative spine: Shortlist down to the main key points.
You might find that some of the key points are not relevant to the story you have come up with. Or perhaps some key points are closely related and therefore can be merged into one key point. It’s not unusual to start off with 10 key points and shortlist them down to five or six — depending on the story or word count limit or time.
Stage Three of building a strong narrative spine: Arrange key points into a logical sequence (in this case, cause and effect).
You’ve got to be very logical here, and write to the delicate cognitive processes of the reader. Point #1 below is the whole reason for the post, so it makes sense to start off with Bob’s arrival to Oz. Then we need to know why he does what he does, so Points # 2 and #3 (interrelated) explain that clearly, showing us the driving force behind his exceptional ability to bring opposing forces onto the same page. This is demonstrated with Points # 5, #6, #7 and #8, all of which are set up by Point #4 which packages them into the idea of “ground-breaking coalitions”. Then Point #9 makes a nice summary by quoting an expert on the subject we all know and love.
It pays to make time at the beginning of the drafting stage listing, organising and shaping the parts that make up the narrative spine. You not only ensure a strong back bone to your story, you also save a lot of post-draft time editing, revising, rewriting and explaining to others what it is you’re saying to mean, and meaning to say.
Meanwhile, here’s the final draft of the Bob Massie blog post written for 350.Org:
Leaders and politicians can’t commit to an agreed course of action. Decision-makers and community groups are pushing their own agendas. Meanwhile, you and I are signing petitions and hoping and waiting for real leadership toward a low-carbon economy. Bob Massie’s visit to Australia this week couldn’t come any sooner. He is an International Environmental Economist who has proven to bring skeptics, activists, suits and bureaucrats onto the same page. How can he make what is seemingly impossible, possible?
We can all find out when he visits Australia later this week to give his talk on Life After Fossil Fuels: Toward a Low Carbon Economy. For all of us, especially those in leadership roles, Bob follows a key principle that defines him as the unifying leader that he is—people can want the same thing for different reasons — according to Bob: “This is an important insight because if you fight about this you may never get to the agreement as people set up machine gun nests for their own beliefs”.
It is this leadership style that has enabled a bringing together of commercial and conservation interests into successful coalitions of change. In fact, Bob’s track record has earned him the title of “the cat herder” among some of his fellow campaigners.
In the past decade, he has created and led three renowned organisations that have kicked off the global corporate sustainability movement.
In 1996, he became president of Ceres, an organisation to facilitate and accelerate investors, companies and public interest groups to pave the way toward a sustainable economic future. In 1997, he co-founded and chaired the Global Reporting Initiative, which quickly became the world’s leading standard for corporate sustainability, and its guidelines are still used by over 2000 multinational corporations. Then in 1998, he kicked off the Investor Network on Climate Risk, which now has over 100 members globally and combined assets totaling more than $11 trillion. These three groups are just some of the impressive movements Massie has steered over the last twenty years. His latest endeavour, the New Economy Coalition, aims to challenge the norm by facilitating a much needed conversation between otherwise competing groups to reach a common goal.
In short, this is a leader of leaders who knows how to bring people together and get things moving. Bob explains that, “If you build the outcome you want, then different groups can attach to it in their own ways.” He adds that, “It is important to build momentum and expand the field rather than worry about purity and ownership and competition”.
And that is ultimately Massie’s goal: to build a strong, cohesive economic framework that is modeled around sustainability. Al Gore describes Bob Massie as a man who has ‘combined foresight, passion, and skill to create lasting change in the US and around the world’.
During his Australian visit, Bob will bring with him all the experience and insight needed for us to unite in creating a low carbon economy here in Australia. We can only get there if we all go in the same direction, and the place to start is by attending Bob’s talk, Life After Fossil Fuels: Toward a Low Carbon Economy.
Date: 24th February 2015
Time: 10am – 11:30am
Place: AEGN, Level 2, 39 Little Collins Street, Melbourne 3000
Be part of a united force for good economics.
¹ The Ten Principles of Clear Writing:
Keep sentences short
Prefer the simple to the complex
Prefer the familiar word
Avoid unnecessary words
Put action in your verbs
Write like you talk
Use terms your reader can picture
Tie in with your reader’s experience
Make full use of variety
Write to express, not impress