In professional writing, we use the term “story” in a lot of ways. A former boss used to say “tell me a story” to contributors to proposals. The unwitting recipients of this instruction were always confused by it. Somehow “once upon a time” doesn’t make much sense when writing a proposal response.
So what does it mean when a proposal manager tells a SME to “tell a story”?
Let’s start with basic story structure. Who knows if a child raised by wolves would have the same expectations about stories that someone raised with language would have. But for those of us immersed in language, it’s pretty innate. Harry Potter, structurally, isn’t that different than Star Wars. We expect three acts. The first to get us immersed in the story; the second to raise the tension; the third to resolve the tension.
There’s a logic in stories, and we get irritated with writers that ignore that logic. Things happen for reasons in our story world, cause and effect are easily followed. The language is active and engages our participation by using details that the audience can relate to, language that elicits a response (metaphor and simile both elicit the audience to participate through their imagination).
The best authors play with this all the time. They surprise the audience with unexpected plot twists, but even those have to be justified by cause and effect. Betray that and find your audience irritated to the point of putting down what you wrote. Take the move Memento. The story unfolds backwards. You’re just as bewildered as the main character. But the story does unfold and the pay off when it all shifts into focus is incredibly satisfying.
My point being that you can play with the structure in fiction. I’m not sure how recommended it would be for technical or proposal writing…
It’s probably best to stick with the essence of story in a professional application: Effect must be preceded by cause. An assertion must be backed up with evidence. Proposed activities have to follow each other in an orderly fashion and they all have to tie back into what the audience can relate to.
So next time your boss tells you to tell them a story and you aren’t entirely sure what that means, start by making all of your thoughts line up like dominoes so that the first inevitably leads to the second, all the way down to a conclusion that feels as inevitable as it does right.