Storytelling is about simplicity

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Storytelling is about simplicity

I recently was going through a company’s product, trying to understand how it worked and how could we tell a good story about it. The product was deeply technical. For those of you that have ever talked with an engineer, you probably know how the conversation looked like. While I’m a Computer Engineer myself, I was struggling to understand all the bits and pieces. At one point I recall telling the engineer that what he was explaining to me looked a lot like a mobile app store. He paused, looked at me, grinned and told me I was right. This situation has become my de facto conversation with founders, CTOs and assorted tech leaders.

Stories work, among many things, because they are easy to understand and recall. They require a very simple language, devoid of technical jargon. The more crystalline and essential the message is, the easier is for people to make the story theirs. Now, the problem is, this is hell for technical people. I love technology and I’m proud of what I build, code and develop. This love for your art, for your science, is one of the things that make storytelling so hard. For us, removing all unnecessary clutter is painful, because for us, everything is necessary.

Truth is, this is not real. Not everything is necessary and most definitely not everything is essential for a major understanding. One of the common questions I get is that, when drafting a story, it tends to be an extremely long one. Yes it is, or at least, it is when it’s the first time you do it. Every story needs to undergo a process of rinsing and repeating. You can always express something with fewer words. I know it sounds impossible. I was one of those skeptics.

It actually resembles the way of martial arts. I still remember my first Aikido class ever. I saw my Sensei throwing three grown man all across the tatami just with his pinkie  The first thought that came to my mind was, of course, “that’s impossible“. After a while, I realized that what I had just witnessed, had to be real, I just couldn’t grasp how was it possible. I told the friend that had invited me to the class that, I had no clue what was going on, but that I wanted to learn how to do such magic. Looking back, I now realize that what I saw that day was just a minimal expression of a much larger movement. Our Sensei, after many years, had condensed the move, from a very large sequence, to a bare flick of his finger. Watching the end result might look like magic, but when you study it, you realize it’s just a compressed expression, the essence of movement in its purest.

Storytelling is exactly the same. The first draft is going to be long. Too long. The more you share it with people, the more you’ll realize which sections work. Take such passages, remove the rest. How do you know what works? It’s easy, those are the parts you’ll get questions and comments on. Treasure them, isolate them and chop the wood in between those moments. The more you do this, the leaner the connection thread between those interesting flashes will become. The same goes for the specific passages. The more you play them, the more specific questions you’ll get about them. That will mark the core concept and you’ll be able to chop the bark around the exterior.

In the end, your story can be told in few words. Those aren’t random words, but key concepts held by key connections. The essence. The condensed sequence of events, displayed just with a finger movement. Always remember, there is a way to use less words to explain something. Simplicity is the easiest concept to grasp, but the hardest to master.


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