Less is more – whether it’s Frascati or figures, gin or graphics

Bicycle in field

Just the other day, I recounted a funny story to a friend – but didn’t get the reaction I’d hoped for.

The essence is this: I went out with a couple of other friends two months ago and got a little bit tipsy (well a lot, actually). And though I cycled home safely, I stumbled at the last hurdle as I tried to manoeuvre my bike into the shed at the end of the garden.

The bike fell over, and I fell on top of it and cracked a rib – or possibly more than one. Thanks to the anaesthetising power of white wine, red wine, gin, beer and some Japanese liqueur (delicious but fatal) I felt nothing.

The next morning was a different story, as the hangover kicked in and my side ached like crazy.

That’s funny, right?

Well it is in hindsight. On that Sunday morning as I clutched my side, it seemed less so.

But even then, I knew as I winced in pain that it would make a great story to retell later. People would laugh at my lack of control, and joke (once again) that Kevin can’t hold his liquor. That when he says I don’t drink, there’s a valid reason for it.

A step too far

So I told the story a number of times, and at varying lengths. And though you’d imagine I’d practise what I preach, I forgot that less is always more.

So I threw in a bit more detail. How I was with A and J at a restaurant, where I was tempted to have just a teensy bit of Frascati. How that was a slippery slope that continued at a party organised by J’s friend A, where alcohol flowed like a mountain stream when the ice melts. And in that stream was the Japanese Killer Liqueur.

How I ended up in the summerhouse talking nonsense with an Italian who said we should do a language exchange. How A brought out an oversized bottle of gin, and started pouring me trebles. How we went from there to a club (bad, bad idea) where I had a couple of beers. And how that led to my hasty, unannounced (much to the consternation of my friends) departure and a wobbly ride home. And finally, the curious incident of the bike in the night-time. 

That’s a whole lot less funny, isn’t it? Well my friend thought so the other day.

And yet it’s the same story.

The thing is, when you’re telling a story, you have to remember what the top-level takeaway is. And for that, you need to summarise.

Since we’re just out of panto season, here’s my summary of Cinderella:

A girl’s widowed father remarries and the stepmother and stepsisters make the girl’s life a misery. They’re invited to a ball at the royal palace, but she has to stay at home. A fairy godmother appears, decks out the girl in finery, magicks up a carriage and sends her to the ball with the warning to leave by midnight. The prince falls for her, she scarpers as the clock strikes 12, but loses her glass slipper along the way. A search is launched for the mystery girl, and thanks to the slipper which fits her to a tee, she’s found, the prince marries her and they live happily ever after.

And even shorter?

A girl from humble beginnings outclassed her wicked stepsisters, won a prince’s heart and lived happily ever after. #triumphovertragedy #fairytaleending

Short and sweet

The essence of storytelling is to hold the reader’s (or listener’s) interest. You need to provide enough detail to engage people, without crossing the line into needless complexity.

So if you’re writing a blog post, start with bullet points and identify the most important message you want to communicate. Work out the supporting details, and cut out everything that doesn’t pull its weight. Even when you think you’ve got it to the right length, try cutting a bit more. 

For a case study, stick rigidly to the tried-and-trusted formula: situation, challenge, process, solution, results. If you have stats, use only the juiciest ones (usually the biggest numbers and percentages).

Quotes are great, as they provide variety and credibility, but they’re best used sparingly. Take the strongest ones and shorten them. Don’t be afraid to tidy them up if you have to. (I’ve never yet had a case-study interviewee object to my reworking their original words to make them seem even more eloquent.)

If you’re putting together something longer like a product brochure, then you will probably need a lot more detail. But don’t let that come at the expense of readability or attention. Summarise what you’re going to say, include call-out boxes, pull the main stats and bullet-point the highlights.

The key thing here is to remember what you want the audience to do.

And to get back to the story of my drunken shenanigans of early November (without even the excuse of the festive season) what I wanted my audience do was laugh. With me, preferably, though at me was fine too, as nothing endears you to an audience like self-deprecation.

As my Italian drinking companion in the summerhouse reminded me, il gioco è bello quando dura poco. The game is good when it doesn’t last long. Stretch out the joke, and it really isn’t that funny anymore. 

I’ll try to remember that next time. Except there won’t be a next time.

At least I hope not – I’ve had enough ribbing for a lifetime.