For a storyteller, the hardest truth to swallow is that readers are not wired to care. They’re not going to keep reading on faith because they can somehow see into your heart and know how hard you tried. They need to see themselves in the story and relate to people or events that the storyteller describes.
Sgt. 1st Class Leah Kilpatrick shares her methods and tips for keeping readers engaged by putting things in a relatable context.
How Do You Get a Reader to Care?
I strongly believe content must be attractive to the receivers of that content. It must be something people want. It must be relatable. In terms of storytelling, that means you have to tell your readers what’s in it for them; you have to make them care; you have to give them the “so what.”
How Do You Start Your Process?
I start by conceptualizing the story as communication between me and a real-life person who will give me straight feedback. For me, that’s my mother. If I told her what I did at work today, she would come back at me with, “Okay, but who cares?” She’s not a blatantly rude person, but she asks a really good question: “What does that have to do with anything?” And this is why she is my person. My challenge now in communicating with her is to find an element of every story that she can relate to. My challenge is to make my mama care.
I assess the actual elements of my story and look for comparisons to common human experiences. This is not as complicated as it might sound.
Let me give you an example. When I was stationed with the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, I was directed to write an article on the TILT operation. TILD stands for "turn in/lateral transfer." If I hadn't dug any deeper, this would have been really dry content about how my brigade was controlling the amount of excess equipment it had. The process involved emptying out the connexes, going through their contents and then making anything serviceable available to other units across the installation and across the Army. The process alleviated the problem of the overstuffed connexes and saved taxpayer dollars. I had to make this uniquely Army problem relatable to the average person.
How Did You Make It Relatable?
What do you think of when you imagine trying to find new homes for a lot of unused goods? If you said spring cleaning, having a yard sale or something of that nature, give yourself a pat on the back. That’s where my mind went to take this complex (but dry) idea and have it make sense to the average reader.
As the details about the volume of goods coming out of the connexes became clearer, I had to find a way to communicate the sheer magnitude of the situation. When you're spring cleaning your house, you might need to host a yard sale to get rid of a couple of extra coats or maybe some unused tools. We were discovering connexes full of coats and tools.
How Did You Put Vast Numbers In Relatable Terms?
Our "yard sale" meant moving several thousand pounds of scrap metal that were collected during the TILT operation. I needed to put that astronomical number in context so it would have meaning. Most people cannot easily visualize the insanely huge numbers we often have to present in our stories. To translate the volume of goods coming out of the connexes, I brainstormed things that are universally known to be huge. Don’t ask me why, but my mind settled firmly on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. I looked up the weight of the Endeavor and compared the poundage of scrap metal collected to it.
The brigade has turned in more than 3,000 property book items, more than 23,000 non-property-book items, more than 20 vehicles, and more than 240,000 pounds of scrap metal. To put that last figure into perspective, the Space Shuttle Endeavor weighed 172,000 pounds.
Any Advice for PA/VI Storytellers?
Too many times, public affairs practitioners send out stories with “a fire and forget” kind of mentality, checking a box but not really caring if the receivers ever get the message or even if we’ve made them want the message. Relatability makes your message understandable, memorable and share-worthy.
I challenge you to rethink the way you communicate and ask yourself: If my receiver never gets the message because I haven’t made him want it, have I effectively communicated? This is where relatability pays dividends.