Three words to shape good stories

Do you struggle to explain the impact of your findings, understand customers, or win new projects? The solution is to learn to tell an efficient and compelling story. And in addition to helping you communicate your work, storytelling is also a tool for thinking. Here is how.

Group of friends around a bonfire at dusk.
Photo by Kimson Doan on Unsplash

Stories are central for communicating ideas and findings. We all tell stories to share experiences, communicate discoveries, argue with colleagues, and document new knowledge.

But stories also help us understand, explore, and solve complex problems. Storytelling is a critical tool for thinking, in science and in society, in physics as well as in design. A story that communicates effectively also helps us to think clearly.

It’s a win-win situation, but learning to think with stories requires time, creativity, and practice.

I regularly meet graduate students to talk about writing and storytelling. Many of them, including aspiring physicists and designers, are hesitant to get started with writing. They have little experience with how to think with words.

But at the same time, they are really good with ideas, problems, and solutions, and they have large toolboxes of techniques and strategies to use.

My solution to the (writing) problem: a new addition to the toolbox.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash.

What if physicists could use writing as a tool to think carefully about their proposal, as yet another way of looking at the problem? What if designers could write a few sentences to help focus their ideas, set direction for explorations, and make sure that the problem in front of them is the same one that the customer wants them to solve?

In my experience, using writing as a tool to think can benefit both physicists and designers. Just a few minutes of writing can trigger new ideas and thoughts, and writing helps to think carefully about the story we want to tell.

With this perspective, writing is not magic, nor is it an exam. Writing is just another tool in the toolbox.

Three short words

Over the last few years, I’ve been successfully using the framework proposed by Randy Olson in his book «Houston, We Have a Narrative». Olson suggests that all stories can be condensed to four sentences, separated by three words:

The first sentence introduces the topic.

AND.

The second sentence moves the story towards a current situation.

BUT.

The third sentence introduces a contrast, a gap, or a conflict, allowing the reader to engage with the content.

THEREFORE.

The fourth sentence delivers on the necessary consequence, and moves the story towards more action, new conflicts, and finally a resolution.

On the surface, these three words may seem too simple to cover the vast diversity of stories we want to tell. And there are of course exceptions to the rule. But using the three words to explore, structure, and think carefully about an idea is very valuable for students and professionals across disciplines. Therefore, I have developed a short, low-stakes exercise to practice using writing with and, but, therefore as a thinking tool. (See what I did there?)

Learn to use the magic trick

Bring out a blank piece of paper and a pen, and write the three key words evenly spaced out on the page. The result is four inviting, open, and welcoming spaces for words separated by a story backbone:

AND

BUT

THEREFORE

Think about the problem that you want to solve, and use six to eight minutes to draft a story using the template in front of you.

Use a timer, and aim to write four bad sentences. Please write a bad draft!

And then, suddenly, there are words on the page, words you can edit, a story you can engage with!

Writing lets us share stories. But more importantly, writing is a way of interacting with thoughts, problems and solutions. Words help us organize ideas and clarify the unclear, and words force us think again, try again, and revise once more.

We write not just to communicate, but to think, explore and understand.

Writing is to help a story come to life. And sometimes, that is simply magical.

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