In Medias Res
We talk a lot about telling stories with our messages, but a common mistake is to tell a story that’s already over. Nonprofits have been talking about stories for a long time because they’re a great way to get potential donors to understand the impact of a gift. However, when Tamsen worked in the nonprofit sector, she noticed that some stories were more effective than others.
The problem is telling stories that are already complete. In order for someone to act on a story, they have to see themselves in it. Luckily, there’s a literary term that can help us out: in medias res, or, “in the middle of things.” For us as message makers, it means looking for opportunities to say, “And this is what you could do, too,” and then point out to people what the next steps could look like.
The key is to give your audience enough context to understand what’s going on, but point them toward a future that involves them. Making sure your stories have an open ending is crucial to giving your listeners the space they need to find themselves in them.
– We’ve been told a lot that in order to drive action, in order to make our messages more compelling we need to tell more stories. But there is a lesson I learned back in the days that I worked for non-profits about the kind of stories we can tell, and the mistake that most of us make. We tell a story that’s already over. I’m Tamsen Webster of tamsenwebster.com, and that’s what we’re talking about this week on Find the Red Thread.
See, this trend towards story telling and business isn’t new, it’s been around at least as long as I’ve been involved in marketing communications, and that’s about 20 years now. See, it’s one of those few places where the non-profit world, I think, actually led the rest of the industry because non-profits have been talking about stories for a very long time. Specifically because stories turn out to be a very good way to get donors and potential donors to understand the impact of a gift. Or, when I worked at a performing arts college, it was a great way to see potential students see the impact of an education at that particular college.
So these stories were really important. But there’s something I noticed about which stories were more effective than others and, pretty counter-intuitively, it was the stories that were already complete that just weren’t quite as effective. You know, why not? Because in order for someone to act on a story they have to see themselves in it. And a lot of times when we tell a complete story, the story feels done over and not relevant to the person who’s hearing or reading it. But thankfully, there is a literary technique that we can use.
Have you ever heard the term, in medias res? It means, “in the middle of things.” And a lot of stories, a lot of classic literature starts this way, you start right in the middle of the story, not “once upon a time,” but you start right with somebody already on a train and something happening. And I want you to think about this in terms of how to flip your stories around a little bit. Because you want to make sure that the people that you’re talking to, the customers that you’re reaching out to, the audiences that are listening to you, that they really see themselves in the story. Not just as a participant and a casual observer, but as someone who can make a difference, as someone who can do it, too.
So, does that mean discard the stories of things that are complete? Of course not! They’re very helpful to make a conceptual idea concrete, that’s one of the reasons they’re so effective. And stories are also the way that we encode information, and that’s why The Red Thread is essentially based on it. But look for opportunities to say, “And this is what you could do, too,” and point out to people what the next steps could look like.
So for instance, if you are trying to raise money for your business or for your organization, show them what has happened, where other donors have gotten a certain initiative, but then make it clear that there are other steps still to be taken and what those things look like. If you’re not raising money, that’s fine, if you’re trying to get someone to take an action on the message, then you can say, “Well this is what some people did, but this is what other options could be, these are the other things that you could do, too.” That allows them to see what the potential action and effects could be. But it also allows them to have the choice to figure out what’s gonna make the most sense for them.
So stay with the stories, but think about combining completed stories, which are also known as case studies, by the way, with stories that have an open end. Stories that your audience, your customer, your prospects can find themselves in, and figure out how to choose their own adventure to complete.
I’m Tamsen Webster of tamsenwebster.com. If you enjoyed this episode please share it and consider subscribing to my newsletter. I’d love to have you on my list. I send out these videos every two weeks, as well as, a collection of some of the research for the swipe file that I keep. A collection of news, interesting stores, new studies, all sorts of ideas for things that you can use in your own messages and presentations. Thanks so much for watching and listening. I’ll see you next time.