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What, Why, and Who - Developing the story

What? Why? and Who? (The intention behind a story)

Many people have uttered the immortal lines, ‘I should write a book about my life - it would be a best seller.’

I am not going to disagree with them - every life has a story, and a story which is genuinely interesting. The problem most of us have is in the ‘telling of it’.

I was reminded of this very recently while working with a group of MSc students preparing to present their research at a conference. Myself and a colleague sat through six presentations to feedback suggestions on how to engage their audience more effectively. The research they were presenting was important, unfortunately the communication of the substance was predominantly dull and boring - a mass of technical data which would be of no interest to the non-technical audience.

Eventually I asked the students, “Tell me, did you enjoy doing your research?” Naturally they replied in the affirmative... “Well,” I said, “It really doesn’t sound like it.”

I asked them what the purpose of the presentation was. The reply received was they had been told to do a presentation - therefore the purpose of the presentation was to do a presentation. Hardly a purpose which would engage anyone.

I asked them to tell us the ‘story’ of their research.

Nevertheless telling the story is not as easy as it seems - obviously there needs to be a purpose behind the telling of it - an intention.

I am always intrigued by the reality most of us never really plan what we are going to say in the same way we would consider planning a letter, email, or report.

So - I asked them to consider the three W’s - What? Why? And Who? - questions I consider not only in my writing but in any piece of communication I consider important. They are especially important if you are planning to write the book of your life.

The three W’s will help you find a purpose and a structure. They don’t need to be answered in any specific order, and in fact you may consider them all at once or answer one then go back and revise the answers you have already given to another.

What? Or perhaps more fully - what am I going to say? What do I want to share? What information do I wish to relay to another. It may seem obvious one should know what they intend to speak about, however, I am sure you will remember a time you have been at a loss for words - not sure what you wanted to talk about, forgot what you meant to say, or in fact started a conversation and realised you were talking absolute gibberish - I have certainly experienced such situations!

Naturally the ‘What’ will change when you consider the ‘Why’ and the ‘Who’.

Why? Why do you want to say what you wish to say. In many respects this is the intention. Unfortunately ‘I’ve got an interesting story to tell’ doesn’t really cut it...

Communication is generally about the sharing of information in a way which changes something. For example, I ask you to do something and you do it - or - I explain some information to you and you understand something in a different way. If you wish to tell your life story, why do you want to tell it? What will someone get from reading/hearing your story.

A rule which works for me is to ensure the ‘why’ is ‘away’ from me and ‘toward’ my ‘audience’. Naturally we all have a psychological need to be accepted, liked, and acknowledged, however, if my focus is purely on wanting people to ‘approve’ of me, my story becomes conceited and selfish (and generally boring).

My ‘Why’ needs to have a benefit to someone else, the question is who.

Who? The reality is not everyone will be interested in what I have to say. I need to understand ‘who’ I wish to tell my story to. This is closely linked to the ‘why’. If I have a specific audience in mind I can tailor my communication to their ‘needs’ and interest.

Answering the ‘What, Why and Who’ actually takes longer than most people imagine. There is a constant re-evaluating of answers as you move through the process - when we understand ‘Who’ we are talking to we need to reconsider the ‘What and Why’ - for example, what do they need to know and why do they need to know it.

The students used the three W’s and their stories became engaging and insightful - even to a layperson.

So a question - do you have a story to tell?

As always please feel free to contact me with any thoughts, ideas, or questions.


The second book in the Insidious Vine Trilogy - The Insidious Sign - was published in July and is available through Amazon worldwide.

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