Technical Communications: Stories All the Way Down

“The fractal expansion of stories does not stop when we hit facts, but when we hit common stories based on common experience. Facts are just stories we agree on.” – Mark Baker

Last night was the inaugural meeting of Communitech’s Technical Communications Peer-to-Peer group, in the funky, shark-infested Jellybean meeting room.

20+ people showed up to hear Mark Baker, author of Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communications and the Web examine the importance and structure of stories in technical communications.

It was a great session, and touched on many topics that will benefit folks in communications roles. Read on for my now-familiar fairly detailed notes!

Stories All the Way Down

To set the context, here’s the teaser blurb for the event:

One of the most intractable barriers to successful communication is the curse of knowledge: the inability to remember what it is like not to understand a subject once you have mastered it. The curse of knowledge exists because language is not made of definitions but of stories. We tend to forget that words we understand tacitly are in fact references to complex stories that we no longer have to call fully to mind in order to understand what is said. But the reader who does not tacitly recognize that story is lost. All of communication, including tech comm, is built up of stories. Stories are told by reference to other stories. It is stories all the way down. By understanding just how much of our language is a tacit reference to stories, we can gain a better understanding of what our readers really need to hear from us, and how best to express it. 

And yes, the event’s title is a play on the seemingly ubiquitous infinite regress problem, familiar to anyone who frequents various Internet message boards and forums.

In Mark’s opening remarks, he talked about how people often think one needs to have “technical communications” in a job title to be interested in technical communications, but in reality a lot of our communication is about technology. Makes sense to me: I lead a product marketing team, and pretty much every instance of our communication touches on technology in some way. Sure, sometimes it’s obvious – like explaining how we achieved some technical milestone – but other times it’s more subtle, like framing a use case in such a way that the reader begins to understand why certain technology foundations are prerequisites or are desirable.

Stories and The Business World

Frequent readers of this blog – and I tip my cap to those of you who fall into this category – will have seen me mention stories and storytelling on a number of occasions (to any aspiring leaders out there, I particularly recommend Gavin Esler’s Lessons from the Top). So, needless to say, Mark’s session ‘had me from hello’, as they say.

In fact, earlier in the day I’d been delivering new hire onboarding training, and I was stressing the importance of storytelling as it relates to marketing and how we can increase the likelihood that a prospect remembers us and what we’ve said. So I live and breathe this stuff.

“Activating purpose is impossible without storytelling, at both the corporate and individual levels.” – John Coleman

Mark began by sharing a passage from John Coleman’s HBR article, Use Storytelling to Explain Your Company’s Purpose:

The idea of “purpose” has swept the corporate world. Encouraged by evangelists like Simon Sinek, myriad firms like Nike, Adidas, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola are devoting real time and attention to explaining why they do. The idea of purpose was central to a book I co-authored.

But activating purpose is impossible without storytelling, at both the corporate and individual levels. As I’ve written previously, while purpose is essential to a strong corporate culture, it is often activated and reinforced through narrative. Individuals must learn to connect their drives to the organization’s purpose and to articulate their story to others.

As a second illustrative example, he shared the possibly (probably?) apocryphal quote from a Harley Davidson executive: “What we sell is the ability for a 43-year old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him.”

In these cases above, companies are selling us stories. We picture ourselves as protagonists in the story they sell us, and instinctively we create emotional attachments to what they’re selling.

In case we weren’t yet on-board, Mark had one more example, this time from Carolyn O’Hara in How to Tell a Great Story:

In our information-saturated age, business leaders “won’t be heard unless they’re telling stories,” says Nick Morgan, author of Power Cues and president and founder of Public Words, a communications consulting firm. “Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all,” he says. But stories create “sticky” memories by attaching emotions to things that happen.

A False Dichotomy

But Mark fears that the emphasis on storytelling can create a false dichotomy: that a communicator can share facts, or stories, but not both. He contends that facts are stories, and that stories build up facts; I couldn’t agree more.

At this point in the evening, I was reminded of these passages from Steven Johnson’s excellent book The Ghost Map, which examines Victorian London’s most frightening cholera epidemic:

The miasmatists had plenty of science and statistics and anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that the smells of London weren’t killing people. But their gut instincts – or, more like it, their amygdalas – kept telling them otherwise. All of John Snow‘s detailed, rigourous analysis of the water companies and the transmission routes of the Horsleydown outbreak couldn’t compete with a single whiff of the air in Bermondsey.

Miasma was so much less complicated. You didn’t need to build a consilient chain of argument to make the case for miasma. You just needed to point to the air and say: Do you smell that?

In the long run, the map was a triumph of marketing as much as empirical science. It helped a good idea find a wide audience.

John Snow‘s map, which vividly tied cholera deaths to the Broad Street pump, told a chilling, memorable story – and only after that story was told did people take notice and begin to accept the true means by which cholera spreads. His story was based on, and itself conveyed, important facts. He just had to tell the story well enough to overcome centuries a might of conventional wisdom about how disease spread.

Mark shared another excerpt from an HBR article, Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling by Paul J. Zak: “Character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later.”

Why is that? Well, if you’ve read Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open, then you’ll be screaming “Oxytocin!” at the top of your lungs, and everyone around you will think you’re weird. Or you could cheat and read Zak’s article, ’cause it mentions oxytocin, too.

But yeah, it’s oxytocin…the increasingly famous ‘trust hormone’.

Close, but So Far

In the blurb, Mark said, “We tend to forget that words we understand tacitly are in fact references to complex stories that we no longer have to call fully to mind in order to understand what is said.”

This next chunk of the session vividly illustrated his point; Mark used several examples to show that people with overlapping language can still have a great distance between them in terms of the stories that hold meaning. In Mark’s words, “You don’t have to be very far apart to think in very different categories.”

“You don’t have to be very far apart to think in very different categories.”

There were lots of nodding heads as he spoke about the pain with no name, and touched on common problems and challenges that technical communicators face.

Can clear terminology solve our problems?

Over the years, Mark has spotted a tendency for technical communicators to keep coming back to taxonomy as a potential panacea to our challenges: “At the moment, we seem to be in a phase where we’ve used them to solve one problem, and now we want to use them to solve all problems.”

He was quick to point out that taxonomies are useful – and indeed later he’d revisit this – and that they’re worth trying, but that there is no singular silver bullet.

The allure of taxonomy is that if we agree on terms, then we will have clear communication, but in practice you can have the first part without achieving the second: the terms are clear enough, but the cumulative and hidden meanings are lost.

To illustrate, Mark explained why words in isolation or with an agreed-upon meaning are not solutions in and of themselves:

  • There are something like 1 million words in the English language
  • The average English speaker has an active vocabulary (i.e., words he or she can use) of about 20,000 words, and a passive vocabulary (i.e., words he or she can understand) of about 40,000
  • In everyday writing, the 25 most frequently used words account for something like one third of communication; the top 100 are something like 50%, and the top 1000 are something like 89%

(for more on the points above, check out The Economy of Language on Mark’s site)

[Aside: I wonder if I was the only one in the audience who immediately thought of Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer? I was also reminded of Frank Luntz’ Words that Work (worth a read for anyone in communications).]

Why can’t agreeing on words solve all our problems? Well, words are nuanced things, and without clear context and shared history there can be all sorts of ambiguity. Like an ogre, or a phyllo pastry, they have layers.

Technical Communications P2P - pastry

Words are like phyllo pastry: layered and crunchy, and they’ll get greasy crumbs all over your best pair of pantaloons.

Also, wait a minute: how can we achieve – literally – the vast majority of our communications in such few words, all of which have (individually, at least) specific meanings?

We tell stories.

Stories Upon Stories

Alright, so words alone don’t solve our main problems of needing to convey facts clearly while creating an emotional response; but stories do. But stories are complex things.

As Jean-Luc Godard said, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”

Upon closer inspection, we’ll notice that our stories are themselves made up of stories. For instance, we’ll mention many things to which our audience can relate, and use those to build up a single high-level point. Unfortunately, if your audience doesn’t understand the component stories, then your audience will miss out on your main point.

The matter is even more complicated in practice, thanks to Father Time. The very words we use evoke stories, but we also have to be mindful that the stories we tell change over time.

On that latter point, Mark shared a challenge that faces technical documentation writers everywhere: we used to say ‘click’ to describe a mouse click (e.g., “click on the OK button”), but what verb do we use (e.g., click, press, select, touch, etc.) in the land of touchscreens? I’m not going to go into detail here, but suffice to say you could Google it and come across many lively debates. My advice to you is this: don’t get between people on different sides when alcohol has been served.

In the case of clicking, the word ‘click’ names the feedback (i.e., the sound that the physical mouse creates) rather than the action itself (i.e., pressing a button). Once learned, though, ‘click’ now means the action. We computer user-folk have internalized the story, and in doing so we forget that it’s a story; our recognition becomes instantaneous. Everything’s hunky-dorey until we try to write something about a touchscreen.

It’s Time for Ambiguity!

OK, another example…compare:

  • “Put oil on the bearing”
  • “Put oil on the table”
  • “Put oil on the shopping list”

Odds are that in the first case you’re picturing squirting some oil on a ball-bearing, in the second you’re setting an oil canister on a table, and in the third you’re writing the word ‘oil’ on your shopping list.

But they all begin with “Put oil on the…”, so we’re dependent upon the context to make the meaning clear. Each phrase evokes a different story in which the word ‘oil’ plays a different role.

Mark’s point here is that, “there’s an incredible efficiency to language”: we can have many different meanings with the same words, and our brains unpack the meaning instinctively. At least, native speakers of the language with shared experiences do. The stories are processed as facts.

At this point, after ripping on the ambiguity of words for a minute, Mark revisited taxonomies and showed examples where they’re critical. For instance, detailed medical taxonomy allows doctors to communicate specific meanings clearly, but taxonomies work in this environment because everyone went to med school – so they have a background of shared stories.

I kind’ve chuckled, here, because just the day before my wife (a marketing communications professional) was having a conversation with one of our company’s salespeople, and he kept using marketing terms. Unfortunately, he was using them incorrectly (for instance, he said he needed an “ad”, when he was actually talking about an “email”), so there were some minutes of confusion until things finally became clear.

No shared stories equals no shared language. Your audience might be fluent English speakers, but if your stories don’t overlap then you risk being ambiguous.

But why do we fall into this trap – of using unrecognized stories – to begin with?

No shared stories equals no shared language. Your audience might be fluent English speakers, but if your stories don’t overlap then you risk being ambiguous.

The Curse of Knowledge

Frequent readers (again, I thank you) will know that I’ve written about the curse of knowledge before.

Mark quoted from the original HBR article:

Many sensible strategies fail to drive action because executives formulate them in sweeping, general language. “Achieving customer delight!” “Becoming the most efficient manufacturer!” “Unlocking shareholder value!” One explanation for executives’ love affair with vague strategy statements relates to a phenomenon called the curse of knowledge. Top executives have had years of immersion in the logic and conventions of business, so when they speak abstractly, they are simply summarizing the wealth of concrete data in their heads. But frontline employees, who aren’t privy to the underlying meaning, hear only opaque phrases. As a result, the strategies being touted don’t stick.

So herein lies the problem:

  • Our words have enormous overlap: picture a Venn diagram in which the two circles are basically one and the same; but
  • Our stories have little overlap; now, picture a Venn in which the circles have very little common ground

Failure to recognize this problem and adjust our behaviour accordingly leads to two types of confusion:

  1. Your words evoke no stories from the reader (but at least the reader knows they’re confused)
  2. (more common) Your words evoke different stories for the reader (unfortunately, in this scenario the reader doesn’t know they’re confused, or they only find out through a wider incongruity)

To see the curse of knowledge in action, Mark suggests visiting the websites for ten hot start-ups and seeing how many homepages actually make sense to you.

Bridging the Gap

“Between the writer and the reader, the bridge is stories…but the stories refer to other stories: it’s stories all the way down.”

How does a writer bridge the gap between him- or herself and the reader? With stories. Well, with good, detailed stories.

In Mark’s words, “Between the writer and the reader, the bridge is stories…but the stories refer to other stories: it’s stories all the way down.”

Consider: “Dave went to the store”. This probably evokes an image of a dude in a hardware store, or sporting goods store, or any generic store.

Next, “Dave went to the store to buy milk”. Aha, now you picture Dave in a grocery store.

Finally, “Dave went to the store to buy milk because the baby was crying”. BINGO! Now you’re probably envisioning him at a convenience store, most likely at night.

The point is that the accretion of detail refines the picture.

The accretion of detail refines the picture.

Stories are fractal in nature; they are self-similar. Mark pointed out that, “The fractal expansion of stories does not stop when we hit facts, but when we hit common stories based on common experience. Facts are just stories we agree on.”

Stories defeat the curse. As Chip and Dan Heath said back in 2006 in The Curse of Knowledge: “Concrete language and stories defeat the curse of knowledge and make executives’ strategy statements stickier. As a result, all the members of an organization can share an understanding of the strategies and a language for discussing them.”

(and note that concrete language still plays a part…in engineer-speak it’s a ‘necessary, but not sufficient’ condition)

Help Them Help Themselves

“OK,” you might be thinking, “I get it: stories are important. And detailed stories are required. But won’t I end up producing a massive tome, if I need to include enough context to hit on those common stories?”

Thanks to the magic of links and hypertext (including search utilities), in a word: “No!”

Hypertext lets us link to additional context, rather than duplicating it all in our own documents. I do this myself in the whitepapers and technology showcases I write: rather than inserting massive excerpts from academic studies and market research, I clearly refer to the main conclusion and invite the avid or skeptical reader to dive in and read the full passage – and provide a link for them to do so. No doubt you’ve seen, and potentially been annoyed by, the many links within this very post =)

As a final related link, you might enjoy this wonderful xkcd comic about The Problem with Wikipedia.

But Mark’s point is this: give the reader some credit, and help them learn. You, as a technical writer, can’t bear 100% of the job of bridging the gap. But what you can do is help the reader meet you halfway by providing them links and resources to create that shared experience.

Key Take-Aways

Mark closed with a quick review of his main points:

  • All facts are stories
  • All communication is an exchange of stories
  • Stories are made up of stories
  • Be conscious of the curse of knowledge (terminology/taxonomy is useful, but doesn’t solve this problem; the terms aren’t the problem, the combination of words evoking different stories is the problem)
  • Figure out what stories the reader knows, and how to express them
  • Use hypertext to connect stories

My thanks to Mark, to Communitech, and to the folks who came out to make the evening a success!

“You, as a technical writer, can’t bear 100% of the job of bridging the gap. But what you can do is help the reader meet you halfway by providing them links and resources to create that shared experience.”


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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One comment on “Technical Communications: Stories All the Way Down
  1. […] [Related: check out the previous Technical Communications P2P, Stories All the Way Down] […]

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