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The Art Of Storytelling

Posted by Mitch Mitchell on Apr 5, 2011
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When I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago asking How Far Would I Go, I mentioned that I was in a story contest to try to win a free Kindle. Well, I didn’t win, and I can’t say I placed since I think there was only the main prize. Hey, that’s just how it goes sometimes.

However, I did get one critique on the story, which was a drastically cut down version my tale on meatloaf. The guy said he liked the story and laughed at it, but that I used the word “I” too many times and that if I’d tightened that up then the story might have been stronger.

Let’s talk about storytelling for a moment, if I may. Back when I wrote my series on book writing, I talked about the art of telling a story. People love stories, and the better you can tell your story, the more people love to hear it. My dad loved telling stories, and I think I got that from him. Our friends Charles, Allan and Jessica tell some wonderful true life stories. And of course there’s Hyperbole and a Half; ’nuff said.

If you’re telling a story in general, it’s often recommended that you try not to use one or two words over and over. For instance, if you’re writing fiction and your story’s main character is Henry, you shouldn’t always be writing “Harry said” or “Harry thought” or something like that all the time. The idea is to weave Harry’s name in there every once in awhile to make sure everyone knows when it’s Harry or someone else, but otherwise try to make one’s story flow better by not stopping on every sentence by saying “Harry”.

That explains writing other stories; what if you’re telling your own tale? Suddenly the rules change, at least in my mind. It’s would sound silly if you were trying to convey your thoughts and you said “there was this thought that” or “Johnny wondered” if your name was Johnny.

If you’re telling your story one would expect you to use “I” most of the time if you’re in it. For instance, I was the main protagonist in writing my stories on The Keys or the poker tournament I was in back in 2009. How else would I have told those stories without the word “I”? If it was fictionalized maybe one finds a different way, but if I, or you, are telling our own story, how ridiculous would it be without “I”?

There is an art to storytelling, though. Beginning, middle, end; that’s the script, just like the script for most songs follows a 1-4-5-1 chord progression. We want to be introduced to our hero, so to speak, early on, and then we want to see what happens to that character, and then we want to see how it’s resolved.

Stories can be short or long; in essence, they are what they are, as I stated in one of my posts on better blogging. Stories need to follow a progression; not everyone likes stories that suddenly go back in history, or take sidebars that don’t seem to have anything to do with the story.

We want it direct, in order, fleshed out as much as needed, and then concluded in a way that makes us feel something; happy, upset, or even laughing. And if it’s your story, we want to know how you felt, what you thought, and if you have to use “I” often then so be it.

Of course, I could be wrong on this, but I doubt it. As I was reading Traci Lords book Underneath It Allicon I was struck by this thought; how could she have told her story otherwise without the frequent use of the word “I”? She couldn’t; that’s the point. If you need to use it, use it as long as it’s about you.

If it’s not about you, or you’re telling a story about someone or something else, then it shouldn’t be an issue with that word, but you need to be careful in looking at the words you do use to see if maybe there’s another choice every once in awhile.
 

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Better Blogging, Part Deux

Posted by Mitch Mitchell on Mar 17, 2011
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I hope you checked out the first part of this mega-pillar post yesterday. If not, you can see the first half of Better Blogging here. It was a monster, but this one is even larger as I drive my points home.

It’s time to talk about actually writing blog posts. Every blog post is going to need a title, but there’s nothing saying you have to have a title first. Some blogging experts will tell you that you should create a title for maximum SEO (search engine optimization) benefits. Whereas I’m sure that can help, sometimes creating a title that will entice readers to come by works just as well. Would you rather read a post that has a title like “How To Regularly Acknowledge Your Direct Reports” or a title like “5 Ways To Make Employees Happy?” Also, try not to make your titles too long; it makes it harder for people who might want to give you acknowledgment for anarticle you’ve written on their blogs if you have a title that’s so long it’s unwieldy.

Next, let’s talk about actually writing posts. Do you remember writing stories back when you were in grade school? The teachers always talked about the concept of a story having a beginning, middle, and an end. Blog posting is kind of like that, even if you can bend the rules a little bit. It never hurts to establish near the beginning of the post what the post is going to be about, especially if it’s an educational post. If you’re telling a story, the beginning doesn’t necessarily have to flow as well, but it does need to have something to capture people’s attention so that they will stick around to read the rest of it. The ending of a blog post is important as well, mainly to help indicate to people that it’s officially over. I have read a lot of blog posts where you get to the end and you’re thinking there should be more to it. Leaving people hanging will irritate them and make them not want to come back. I’m going to come back to talk about the “middle” in a few minutes.

The length of blog posts is something that a lot of people like to talk about. From my perspective, in general a blog post is as long as or as short as it needs to be. That of course leaves a lot of leeway and doesn’t really answer the question as to whether it’s better to write long or short blog posts. The truth of the matter is that there’s no real answer for that because some readers don’t mind reading long blog posts, and actually prefer them because they know they’re going to get all the answers they want and need, whereas some others only want to be given the first two or three paragraphs as the entire blog post and then move on with their lives. We have made it through the MTV generation after all, where many people learned how to get everything they wanted in three or four minute chunks and didn’t have to concentrate on anything any longer. But that doesn’t mean you have to succumb to anyone else’s view of how long or how short you want your post to be.

Having said that, it’s more important looking at how short a blog post is than how long one is. Studies have shown that if the majority of your blog posts aren’t at least 250 words long you’re probably not going to get much benefit out of them. With Google’s new algorithms looking at content that actually offers something of value, it’s hard to justify in their minds that most people can gain value out of consistently short blog posts. This doesn’t mean that every once in a while you can’t get away with writing a short post; after all, if you’re trying to get the word out about some disaster that’s happening now, and you only have a short period of time or only know so much about it, you can’t always be expected to come up with 250 words at a clip. If you don’t care whether Google or any other search engine will help your post or blog to gain traction, then write what you want to. However, if you’re really looking to spread your influence and want the help of the search engines, you’ve got to work on helping to give them what they’re looking for.

Now we come back to talking about the “middle” and thoughts of when to ramble and when to get to the point. Let’s do this in concepts of educating somebody versus customer service.

If you’re trying to teach someone how to do something, it doesn’t always help to go off on tangents of things that have nothing to do with what you’re trying to teach. For instance, in my college astronomy class, the teacher was always talking about fishing and things like casting, rods, and all other sorts of stuff that I had actually no idea what any of it meant. He was of the impression that he could connect fishing information with astronomy to teach us how to do calculations. It didn’t work for me, and even though I knew a lot about astronomy, having read a lot about it through my childhood years, it became a difficult course to pass because of how confused this man made me.

Now let’s relate this to customer service. On occasion I’ve had to call my ISP (internet service provider) to ask questions about my service. What invariably happens is that I get someone on the phone who hears a portion of what I have to say and then immediately cuts me off and starts trying to solve what they think is my issue. The problem is that I’m often more technically savvy than the first person I talk to, and thus they’re trying to solve a problem that’s not my issue, that I know isn’t my issue, and that I know won’t be solved by any of the advice they’re starting to give me because they haven’t taken the time to fully listen to what I have to say.

Sometimes life and blogging are just like that; you need to have some filler, which some people might consider as rambling, in order to get the nuances of what you have to say better understood. This works especially well when you’re telling a story of some kind. If you leave a lot of detail out, the accuracy of your story will be lacking. People either have questions, or leave without understanding what the heck you’re talking about. Trying to get to the point without making sure everyone understands what it is you’re talking about just to try to keep a blog post short will surely kill your blog because people like knowing everything they need to know to get where you’re coming from.

So when not to ramble? If you make a point about something, there’s no need to make that point 3 or 4 times in the same post. That type of thing gets on people’s nerves. Also, making extraneous points that don’t help to clarify anything or add to the enjoyment of the story can be left out. If you happen to be talking about someone and you’re giving a description that they have blue curly hair that flows into a mullet that merges in with a Chicago Blackhawks sweatshirt they’re wearing, that’s a funny image. But if you’re talking about someone you happen to think is overweight and then go on a rant about overweight people in general before getting back to the rest to your story, that was probably not needed and you might have turned off a lot of people. Circumspection is always your best friend when trying to decide whether you’ve rambled too much or whether you’ve told enough to give the story or whatever it is you’re writing about enough substance.

So now you’ve written your blog article and you’ve posted it for all to see. Before you did that, did you think about whether you wanted to receive comments or not? The overwhelming majority of bloggers want to have comments on their blog posts. Blogging is part of social media after all, and being able to interact with others who respond to the things we write about is what makes blogging so special.

But there are people who either don’t want comments or want to restrict comments. Seth Godin is a perfect example of someone who doesn’t allow comments on his blog. He’s a big name person who’s written a lot of books, and not allowing comments has not stopped a lot of people from reading his blog or sharing his thoughts with other people. But not everyone can get away with that. Some people will write blog posts and every once in a while and then write one that they don’t want anyone commenting on. Many times it’s either a very personal post or rant that someone just has to get out, but would rather not deal with the controversy that allowing comments could create. Some people write blog posts and have a very short period of time that they leave comments open before they shut them down. I’m not going to say that any of these are good or bad; what I am going to say is that you as the blog writer has to make a choice of which direction you want to go and what you’re hoping to accomplish.

If you’re going to allow comments on your blog, I’m always of the opinion that it’s best to make it easy for people to comment. I’m someone who doesn’t moderate comments, set up exclusive blogging comment systems, or make people jump through hoops in order to leave a comment. The reason I don’t do that is because there have been a number of studies which have shown that a majority of people don’t like always having to sign up for the right to offer their opinion on something; I’m one of those people. For instance, if you’ve ever visited newspaper sites that allow comments, you’ll notice eventually that you’re seeing the same names over and over. It makes sense for a newspaper site to screen people because their expectation should be higher to protect both their readers and their advertisers. It doesn’t happen enough in my opinion, but for those that are doing it I applaud them for that effort.

For the rest of us, it doesn’t engender enough good feeling from those people who visit our blogs to put up roadblocks to the act of commenting. There have been a number of studies that have shown that having a system like Disqus or Intense Debate might raise the quality of comments that show up on a blog, but between 50% and 60% of people won’t sign up for those services and will either just read the content without ever wanting to comment or stop visiting those blogs altogether because of the frustration of not being able to comment however they want to.

The case for moderating comments is entirely different. People have different reasons for wanting to moderate comments, which can go from wanting to make sure certain information doesn’t show up on a blog post or making sure that no comment gets through that potentially has people saying something that the owner of the blog wishes not to allow. My gripe about visiting blogs that moderate comments is that you often find that later on at some point, when you’re least expecting it, you suddenly getting a whole lot of messages all at once both from people who comment on the blog and the blog owner’s response to those people. If that blog happens to be popular it can be overwhelming. It also gives the appearance of not trusting people who want to comment on your blog. Now, if you put your reasons up as to why you moderate comments, many people will accept that but at least they get to then make the decision as to whether they want to participate or not. I hate when I don’t know someone has a moderation policy and I do leave a post, only to realize that I have no idea when, or if, it will ever show. And I’ve had a lot of comments that have never shown up on someone’s blog.

Of course the big thing most of us worry about is spam. We all hate spam, but there’s nothing we can do to stop it totally. However, with most blog platforms there are these things that are known as plugins that can help slow it down drastically. They’re easy to set up and easy to use for both the blog owner and those who wish to make comments, and if you’re setting up different blog commenting ways to reduce spam, such as moderating or coming up with things like Captcha or math problems, it’s a better way to go.

We’re coming into the home stretch, and if you’ve lasted this long I thank you for it. These are some final thoughts towards the concept of better blogging.

I’m often asked where I get inspiration for ideas to write my blog posts. My goodness, every day of life is an inspiration to write a blog post, and for non-niche blogs it’s even easier. But since I do try to stay on certain topics more than other topics, I find that doing a lot of reading of other blogs really helps my mind figure out what I want to write on. For instance, if I happen to be reading someone’s post and they’re talking about 10 ways to do something, I could not only decide to write a commentary post on that article, it also gives me an opportunity to link back to that article. That way the original writer gets a boost from my article, and I have a new article as well. I honestly get ideas from my real life on a consistent basis, but I can get ideas by turning on the TV, following a thread on Twitter, or almost anywhere else. My problem is that I come up with so many ideas that I sometimes forget what they are when it’s time to write something. Lucky for me, I can always come up with something else fairly quickly to write on. Inspiration is everywhere; you only have to be alert and open to it.

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, there’s also the concept of “sharing the love”. People love knowing that you enjoyed their article enough to link to it, even if you disagree with their point of view. It never hurts to link to anybody, and that type of thing often encourages people to link to you as well. Something that works well with commenting, especially if you have a WordPress blog, is called CommentLuv. What that does is allows people to have a link back to their blog if they comment on yours showing the very last blog post they’ve written, and if they’ve registered with the site they get to choose from the last 10 blog posts they’ve written. I know that has gotten me a lot of visitors, and I also know that it’s provided me with enough blogs to be able to check out, see if I like them, and comment on.

Earlier I also talked about selling ad space on a blog, but that brings up your making the decision on whether you want to have advertising, marketing, or sell space on your blog or not. Google does have some rules for how you sell or market certain things on your blog (pertaining more to how you share certain types of links) to continue being listed on their search engine, but whether you care or not about that is irrelevant. If you’re using your blog to help you create influence or to get clients for projects or services, then marketing every once in a while isn’t such a bad thing for you to think about. If you’re trying to make money via affiliate marketing or MLM (multi-level marketing), that’s not such a bad thing either. If your blog happens to be popular enough and someone wants to pay for the space to add some kind of banner ad to it, that’s not so bad either. Each person has to make a decision on what they hope their blog will do or what they want to put on their blog. You just need to be aware of how these things might affect the people who visit your blog and determine how much or how little it might affect their enjoyment when they stop by. Also, you need to be aware that adding text ads that don’t ever have anything to do with what your content it about opens you up to someone reporting you and having your blog lose it’s Google PR (page rank). That’s what happened to my blog, although, as some of you know, I think PR is overrated anyway.

Something many bloggers forget to do is internally link to their own previous blog posts. With WordPress there are plugins that can handle some of this for you, and I know that with other blog platforms there are programs that can also do that. But any time you can link to your own content gives you the opportunity to keep people on your blog, get them interested in other things that they may be looking for, and helps to show your expertise while helping to spread your influence. It also helps with SEO, especially if you’re familiar with the concept of anchor links, which basically means using a link to highlight a certain word that is either also in the link or that will take you to a page that specifically talks about that word or topic.

Then there’s the concept of how frequent you want to put out blog posts, and what time you’re putting out blog posts. I happen to have four blogs, and my frequency schedule is different for all of them. For instance, on this blog I write 6 to 7 posts a week. On another blog I write for a five posts a week, but the posts are relegated to the business day. On the third blog the idea is to have 3 to 4 posts a week. And on my fourth blog I’m shooting for one post a week at this time, as it’s very new and it’s going to take a little bit of time for me to figure out everything I’m hoping that blog will end up being. I have a goal for that one, as I mentioned way back when that people should think about when they create a blog, but how to fully manifest it is something that one does not have to figure out before they start blogging. To me, it’s always important to just start something and get it going. As to what time of day… well, that one’s still under consideration, as I’ve yet to figure out whether it’s best to post in the morning or in the afternoon; posting in the evening means I risk a blog post not showing up in some areas until the following day, and that I don’t want to happen.

I know you’re starting to get tired, so the final thing to talk about is how to get the word out about your blog. You can’t just write a whole lot of posts and expect people to show up; blogging doesn’t work that way. You have many options available to you. One, you can send a link to your blog to everybody you know via email. Two, you can hook up on something like Twitter and make sure that every blog post also post itself to Twitter. Three, what you’ve done for Twitter you can also do for other social media outlets such as Facebook or LinkedIn. Four, you can make sure that every blog post automatically “pings” to what’s known as a blog pinging service such as Ping-o-Matic; this means it alerts blog directories that you’ve written a new post. Or five, you can learn how to work the blogging community and blog networking via the concept of commenting on a lot of other blogs. I’ve done all of these, and the one that I found most effective is commenting on other blogs. It just offers the most options across the board, especially if those blogs happen to have CommentLuv. It also takes the most time, but you can get the most enjoyment out of doing it.

And that’s the end of this killer pillar post on better blogging. I’ve covered a lot of ground here, and I make no promises that I didn’t leave anything out; after all, this is a huge subject. Any questions, just ask; I’m going to bed. ;-)

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