Create fill-in-the-blanks story forms
An old friend was kvetching recently about his lousy job. After working for a series of magazines, he’d landed at the metro daily, where he was editing a daily page of tips and tricks for the lifestyle section.
“My passion is for the long-form narrative,” he said, sniffing at the prospect of being reduced to writing nibbles and bits of information.
Hey, I love writing narratives, too. But narrative isn’t the only form, and it’s not always the right form for the job. In fact, sometimes fill-in-the-blanks templates actually serve your readers better.
Save reading — and writing — time
Consistent, standard templates work because once they’re familiar with the template, readers spend less time learning a story’s structure, write Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis in “Preparing Messages for Information Overload Environments (PDF),” an IABC Research Foundation report.
That reduces processing time and effort. Which explains why companies like Procter & Gamble use standardized one-page memo templates to improve productivity.
Standard templates also save communicators writing time. That makes templates perfect for hacking out B projects in communication triage.
So you might consider standardizing press releases, web pages, proposals, case studies — even your personality profiles. The secret is to develop standard structures that are flexible enough to cover a variety of subjects and to make sure everyone uses the templates.
Here are 10 templates to consider:
1. Story grids
Are you comparing X number of items by Y number of characteristics? Make your story a table or grid.
Meeting stories are tough. Too often, communicators blah-blah on about who said what in chronological order. “When it’s just a meeting where some things were approved and some action was taken, wouldn’t this information better benefit readers as a grid?” Scanlan asks. I think it would.
|Agenda item||Background||What happened||What’s next||Discussion|
2. Case studies, testimonials and mini narratives
3. Web pages
In a recent project, we created templates for for some sections of Saint Luke’s Health System’s new website. Department pages, for instance, included:
- Highlights: A bulleted list of our three most compelling differentiators — firsts, mosts, bests, biggests and onlies
- Nut graph: A one-paragraph summary of the department
- The team: Notable players
- Services: A bulleted list
- Learn more: Contacts and links
- Testimonial: A callout from a patient
Write by number
Words like “template,” “formula” and “recipe” are sometimes seen as profanities in a creative field like writing. But good writing is at least as much science as art. And you can’t argue with results like “easier to read” and “easier to write.”
No doubt about it: “T-e-m-p-l-a-t-e” is not a four-letter word.
Sources: Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis, “Preparing Messages for Information Overload Environments” (PDF), IABC Research Foundation, 2009
Chip Scanlan, “Nonlinear Narratives,” The Poynter Institute, Oct. 16, 2003
Josh Awtry, “Grid Tips,” The Poynter Institute, Oct. 15, 2003
Josh Awtry, “‘There just isn’t a story here,’” The Poynter Institute, Oct. 15, 2003