One of the most important storytelling techniques in an age of information overload is the ability to grab a reader’s attention from the first sentence. Nothing connects people more powerfully than story; in today’s defense landscape, every communicator should know the basic mechanics of the art. At the most foundational level, every impactful story should present a hook that gets your audience invested as early as possible.
In other words, save the best for first, not last.
In a recent storytelling workshop I taught at my company, I wanted to demonstrate the ingredients that go into creating a hook with an emphasis on applying classic literary and marketing techniques to the defense industry. As I put it in a previous article, when you entertain, then educate, you are more likely to hook your audience from the get-go and keep them reading.
Kicking off the workshop, I first had to clarify what story is by explaining what it is not:
1. It’s not a process (you can go check out a factory assembly line for that)
2. It’s not a hierarchy (that would be an organizational chart at your company)
3. It’s not a chronology (the focus here is on dates or events, not story)
4. It’s not even a narrative, although admittedly sometimes the words “story” and “narrative” are used interchangeably (to simplify the difference: a narrative gives an account of a series of events, but story is what shapes the events and electrifies them with meaning)
Let’s focus in on the concept of meaning in storytelling, because I think it’s the key to getting started in the art form and creating that great hook. What makes a story meaningful, according to Hollywood’s screenwriting guru Robert McKee, is the interplay of values. Here are a few examples of values in the context of story structure that have direct relevance for the security world:
1. Power vs. Weakness
2. Secure vs. Vulnerable
3. Right vs. Wrong
4. Success vs. Failure
Storified thought interprets every event in terms of its core value interplay. For an event to be meaningful, there must be a back-and-forth between a value charge and a discernible change by the end of the story. The best way to hook your audience’s attention is to open with a story where these values are clearly at war with each other.
Playing off this push-and-pull idea, McKee defines story as “a dynamic escalation of conflict-driven events that cause meaningful change.” In storified thought, every event is interpreted or filtered through this core value interplay. It helps the mind recall previous events and project possible outcomes. It also helps the mind focus on what’s meaningful, while cutting out everything else that is trivial.
Conflict is what forces change. It’s also the key behind the hook. When something is at stake, people listen, they want to know what happens next. Implicit in the values that you pit against each other in a hook is a binary charge of positive vs. negative. As you move from the hook to the rest of your story, let your values play off each other to build tension. This will encourage the reader to continue scrolling through to find out what happens next.
Even if you’re looking to present highly technical information, hooks and proper storytelling technique are still relevant. (For an example of how I balanced technical aspects with compelling storytelling, click here.) As Sarah Moffat posits in Patrick Mallory’s article on “Storytelling in Cybersecurity,” even in the most technical of fields, stories allow businesses and organizations to distill complexity and improve audience comprehension.
To reiterate, keep in mind the following 5 rules for creating hooks:
1. Save the best for first, not last
2. Entertain, then educate
3. The best way to hook your audience’s attention is to open with a story with clear values that are in conflict
4. Every event in your story should be interpreted or filtered through a core value interplay
5. When something is at stake, people listen
If you have any feedback to share or ideas for future lessons that would interest you, feel free to leave a note in the comment box. I look forward to sharing additional articles in the near future on story structure and other writing techniques, so stay tuned.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.