I have wanted to write about the role of story in technical communication for a long time. It is certainly a subject that comes up again and again, but without any clear message emerging. I have long felt that yes, story is fundamental to technical communication, but I could never quite pin down how.
It is well understood that story is fundamental to human beings. We are a species who tells stories, who understands ourselves and our roles in the world in terms of stories. The marketing business has long recognized the centrality of stories to what they do, and the importance of story in creating an emotional connection to the reader. A Harley Davidson executive is supposed to have once said:
What we sell is the ability for a 43-year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him.
That’s a story.
But what has that to do with technical communication? Presumably the Harley Davidson repair manual was not written to evoke this same emotion. If good tech comm generates emotion, presumably it is the satisfaction of a job well done. Perhaps it is the confidence to tackle a job in the first place, if we count such confidence as an emotion.
But this presumes that story is always about emotion. More specifically, these days, it seems to presume that all stories are a telling of the hero’s journey, the theory of storytelling that has dominated Hollywood since Star Wars.
Imagining the user as a questing hero in search of a pearl of wisdom in order to make their phone work just seems silly. And it violates the principles of simplicity and directness that are fundamental to technical communication. Anyone who has encountered tech docs that attempt to be “fun” knows the result is almost always an excruciating waste of time.
But my recent post on taxonomy led me down a path to appreciating the role of story in all communication, including tech comm. When you try to pin down what individual words mean, you quickly discover that they don’t convey anything very specific until you use them to tell a story.
The word “store” by itself has a number of associations, but it does not really mean anything concrete until you put it in a story:
Dave went to the store to buy milk because the baby was hungry.
Words can have multiple associations, multiple denotations, but it is only when juxtaposed to other words in a story that a single denotation emerges.
In other words, story is not a special form of communication; it is all of communication. We communicate by telling stories. The hero’s journey is not an archetype of all stories, just the archetype of one type of story.
By themselves, the words “run,” “see,” and “spot,” can each denote a number of objects. Put them together into a story, “See Spot run.” and you have something that creates an image of a running dog.
At least, you do if you belong to a culture in which “Spot” is a common name for a dog. If not, maybe the image you got was of a spot of wet paint dripping, or maybe something else, or maybe nothing. If your early education included the Dick and Jane books, from which that line is taken, you also see two small children, a boy and a girl, to whom the dog belongs.
The word “dog”, however, is not in the story itself. The image of a dog that the story produces in your mind is a result of you knowing that Spot is a common dog name. That too is a story. The story “See Spot run” depends on you knowing the story “Spot is a common dog name.”
That is how stories work, by invoking your knowledge of other stories. It is a wonderfully efficient system. If we had to explain everything all the time, we would never get anything said. By appealing to stories you already know, though, we can be much more compact.
Here is a paragraph from a recent opinion piece.
Algorithms make mistakes all the time. Just think about auto-correction on your iPhone, the recommendations on Netflix, or the coupons automatically printed at Kmart’s checkout. Just this past week, a fraud detection algorithm incorrectly blocked my ATM card while I was traveling in Germany, despite having called in a travel notification before the trip.
In this one brief paragraph there are reference to a half dozen other stories at least, and if you really analyse it down, probably many more. Autocorrect often makes amusing mistakes. Netflix recommendations are often silly. Kmart’s coupons are usually for things I don’t want. None of these things are said explicitly. The appeal to these shared stories is enough.
Is there anything other than stories? There is data. There is also a theory that distinguishes between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. But while this sounds compelling as a set of words, it turns out that people have great difficulty defining what each of the terms means, particularly knowledge and wisdom.
I’m going to suggest something much simpler. There is data and there are stories. Data is simply data. Facts. (I defy you to come up with a definition that is not circular.) Stories seem to have two essential properties: they are world building, and they are transitive. That is, they build a picture of the world in the reader’s head, and they then create a change in that picture.
Information, knowledge, and wisdom, it seems to me, all come down to the stories you have in your head. Perhaps the progression to wisdom is a matter of having stories that link to other stories in useful ways that make better sense of the world, that provide a more secure foundation for decision making and action. But I would submit that they are still just stories.
As communicators, then, we are storytellers. Not hero’s-journey storytellers, but still storytellers, because there really isn’t anything else. If we are doing anything more than recording data, we are telling stories.
And the way we tell stories is by stringing words together in ways that evoke stories that the reader already knows. If the reader does not know one of the stories that you invoke, they have to go learn that story before they can move on.
Figuring out what story they have to go learn, however, is not always easy. We usually evoke the sub-stories of our stories by implication. We do so because it is efficient, and because it his how our minds work, how we form language and understand it. But if I do not know what is implied — if the word that does the implying is a word that, like most words, has many denotations, and if the apt denotation is one that you recognize only by context, it is very difficult for an uninitiated reader to find the end of the thread.
This, I suspect, is at the root of the problem know as “the curse of knowledge“. It can be described, per Wikipedia, as “a cognitive bias that leads better-informed parties to find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed parties.” But what the better-informed party knows, that the lesser-informed party does not know, is stories.
And the reason, I would suggest, that overcoming this bias is so difficult, is that we integrate these stories so tightly into our language, that the invocation and recognition of them becomes essentially unconscious. (Just as language would be appallingly inefficient if we had to explicitly tell all these stories, it would be appallingly inefficient if we had to think them all through in order to speak or write, and explicitly recognize them in order to understand.)
And this is why communication on a broad scale is fundamentally difficult, why people often require multiple sources of information combined with practical experience, to grasp what may seem to us elementary concepts: we have so internalized the stories on which these concepts depend that we have forgotten how to tell them, and that we need to tell them. And for many concepts there are so many stories — stories on stories — to be learned, that there is no shortcut to understanding.
This is why readers don’t read in a straight line. This is why every page should be page one — because every page tells a story, and people need stories in an order and sequence that are unique to them, and that is uncovered only as they learn, for each story they discover depends on other stories they must learn.
It is also why stories should link richly — because it helps the reader to find the stories they need, not just because it is faster than searching, but because links — good links — resolve the ambiguity of implied references to stories.
And it is why we need a disciplined and systematic approach to linking, because that helps overcome the author’s curse of knowledge about what stories they are implying, and even when they are implying them.
*Edited 2015-07-29 to amend a passage that was needlessly and thoughtlessly derisive.