Skip to content

How to tell a story

Every child knows what a story is.

After all, we’ve all been hearing stories since before we could walk.

Marketing consultants are constantly telling us to use stories to attract and engage prospects. And certainly any problem/solution white paper must tell a compelling story.

This story must engage readers, tie the whole document together, and carry readers straight through to the end.

But have you ever stopped to ask what “telling a story” really means? And what exactly is a story?

 a story can make a more effective white paper

Any fiction writer can give you a standard definition.

They might say, a story is about people in a place with a problem.

And we must care about those people and how they deal with their problem.

An English teacher might say a story has characters, setting and conflict. (This is just another way of saying “people in a place with the problem.”)

A good story has dramatic twists and turns so that we wonder how it will turn out in the end.

And any story certainly has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Beyond that, stories come in all shapes, sizes, genres and media. A TV show, an action movie, a romance novel and even an anecdote told over lunch: These are all forms of stories.

People all over the world need stories

But how well do stories travel? Won’t a story that people appreciate in one time and place fall flat in another market?

Not if you stick to the basics.

Robert McKee is a screenwriter who has studied and taught about storytelling for many years. He gives workshops all over, and I was delighted to attend his 3-day workshop in Montreal a few years ago.

Robert McKee Story book coverMcKee says the desire for stories is not culturally determined.

And he says this desire is not confined to any special time in history, or to any particular part of the earth or to any one race or people or creed.

He says there is something in the human mind that seeks out stories.

In fact, we all need stories to help make sense of our experiences in this world.

We need stories to pass along cultural insights and to keep ourselves safe from dangers. Perhaps most of all, we need stories to reassure ourselves that there is some justice in this world.

But how can this help anyone write a good white paper? The rest of this article explains how.

How to use story elements in a white paper

Remember, a “problem/solution” white paper describes how a lot of business people in a certain place suffer from a nagging problem.

People: The characters are close at hand, people you can relate to. They include everyone suffering from the problem. If you can name them by job title or role in a company, do it.

Place: The industry, sector, market space or even geo-location where the problem occurs.

Setting adds realism and specific details that make a story come alive. Pinpointing the dynamics and challenges of a particular market space can make your white paper come alive as well.

Problem: Some nagging industry-wide issue that everyone in a particular market space struggles with, but no one ever manages to overcome.

Hint: The bad guy is not the sponsor’s competition; the bad guy is the problem everyone is trying to beat.

The competition includes all the people who tried—and failed—to beat the problem. Think of them as all the other knights, brave and strong, who tried to slay the dragon, but instead got burned to a crisp.

In other words, many lesser heroes throw themselves at the problem using ineffective technologies, inadequate plans and limited ideas. But the problem beats them all.

The bad guy: So the problem is clearly the the antagonist. Even my 3-year-old daughter knows what a bad guy is.

The good guy: Then who’s the hero, the protagonist? Not your company. The real hero is the new and improved solution that your white paper proposes.

The good guy uses something that’s never been tried before: a new technology, a more thoughtful plan or a more imaginative idea that truly vanquishes the problem.

Conflict and drama: Use a pinch of drama to add tension and suspense to the industry-wide problem. After all, the stakes are huge. Billions of dollars and a big part of the world hang in the balance!

Many sales and marketing people are uncomfortable talking about problems, other known as “pain points.” But without a tough problem, you have no story to tell.

You don’t need to say all this explicitly in your white paper. Just use this approach to provide a structure.

a sales pitch is not a white paper

A story is NOT a sales pitch

Thinking about story structure helps illuminate the difference between a white paper and a sales pitch.

A problem/solution white paper sketches out a big problem, all the failed attempts to solve it, and a new, improved solution that works better than  all the rest.

A sales pitch simply jumps ahead to the ending without any drama and shouts, “Hey, we’re the hero!”

Is it any wonder that most sales pitches fall flat, when they ignore all the basic tenets of story-telling?

Try using the traditional elements of a story to help structure your next white paper…. and see how it becomes much more engaging.

It may take a little practice, but story-telling is a powerful device to use in a white paper. And after all, we all know what a story is.

How do you use story-telling in your white papers or other content? Please leave your comments below.

Want to hear whenever there’s a fresh article on this site? Subscribe here to stay in the know on long-form content. From time to time, we’ll also send you word about some great new resource or training. And you can unsubscribe any time.  


About Gordon Graham

Worked on 300+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. And named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

If you liked this post...

polishing a white paper draft

Quick Tip: My favourite way to polish a draft

Read it out loud. That quickly reveals any awkward phrases or run-on sentences. To me,...
hand tools on wooden table

Tools of the trade

We all need tools, and writers are no exception. Here's a roundup of all the...
great numbered list from Robert Reich in The Guardian

A great example of a numbered list

I recently came across an excellent example of a numbered list. You know, strawberry? It...

Leave a Comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.