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by M.L. Herring

(presentation first made to the Association for Communication Excellence, 

June 18, 2012, Annapolis, MD)

Once upon a time, there was a story. This Story was born from the marriage of Knowledge and Experience.


When it was young, our Story was little more than a few facts. Little facts, like who, what, when, and where, that our Story rearranged like building blocks in pretty little patterns. 


Experience provided examples to her child, adding to the little facts rich details of color, texture, taste, and feeling. Knowledge added context to his child’s little blocks of facts, introducing Story to the teetering gravity of history and consequences. 


Nurtured by examples and context, the Story grew. 


In time, our Story encountered other communications from different parts of town. Some of the other tales were fun to be with, full of puns and dirty jokes. Other stories were darker, with a bite of irony or sarcasm. Some communications wielded the same set of facts as our Story, but added other elements—hungry tigers, devious funding agencies—that changed the telling of the story. 


The communications community was a noisy town, jammed with every kind of vehicle to carry stories. There were zippy little podcasts, tweets, blogs, even a few clunky old neighborhood newsletters that still managed to make it out of the garage. There were ongoing feuds between rival gangs: the First-person Crips against the Third-person Bloods. The active-voice liberals railed against the passive-voice conservatives. Our Story was tempted by the drugs of over-simplification, over-reaching conclusions, and incomplete research.


All the stories struggled against each other with sharpened metaphors, explosive imagery, and unrestrained voice to claim the high ground of media attention. Many times, our Story felt like quitting, satisfied with a few facts and a nice lede.


Until one day, as our Story ambled comfortably over familiar ground, a voice called out from a distant pyramid. “I am a Message!” the voice called out. This was nothing our Story had ever encountered, even in the roughest neighborhoods of technical writing. A Message was trapped in a pyramid prison!


Our Story looked around. The pyramid was a fortress of habit and convention, unchallenged by the complacent community of ordinary communications. Mission statements, strategic plans, even news releases mumbled jargon at the foot of the monolithic pyramid. Our Story pushed past AP Style to get a better look at the imprisoned Message


Although our Story had come a long way since its opening line, it was still just a pile of facts. But it stood on a sturdy platform of context, with a narrative of sharp examples. The Message was within reach.


Suddenly an army of boilerplates and clichés swirled out from the pyramid, clubbing our Story with their leaden prose. “Stay away from our Message with your fairy-tale words!” they screamed. “Stop trivializing our report. We must keep the Message locked up for its own good! Locked up where it is safe from public understanding!”


A rain of hard-edged jargon bore down on our Story, as the thin span of narrative arc on which our Story stood began to crumble under its feet. 


Now what? Will our Story overcome the slings and arrows of cliché to rescue the imprisoned Message? Will a gossamer-winged Reader bless our Story with rapt attention and fly its Message to the level of Epic?


Or will the Message, bloated from a diet of ponderous verbosity while imprisoned in the pyramid, squash our Story in a tragic ending of inflated prose?


It all depends on the Power of the Story.


(copyright 2013, @M.L. Herring)

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