The common wisdom is that the essay is protean, a shape-shifter, that it has myriad forms and applications — the article, the op-ed piece, the book review, the complaint to the principal, the statement to the court, the declaration to the loved one, the philosophical musing, etc. — and that any attempt to rigidly define it is misplaced. Corral it in neat parameters and the spirited horse is no longer wild and free. But I'm sure all of us have come to the essay through this spirit of over definition and prescription: Didn't we all learn the joys of the five-paragraph essay in college or high school? You remember the formula: There's an introduction, which houses the thesis (the main idea) and sets out three points to be covered; and then there are (preferably) three paragraphs, each explaining one aspect of that original idea; and then there's a conclusion. In effect, you tell your readers what you're going to say, then you say it (with examples explicitly labeled as examples in case the reader isn't following the already well-worn path), and then you tell them what you've already told them (you know how that begins: In conclusion), and the reader glazes over at the regurgitated ideas and falls back asleep. Have you tried storytelling with data to boost customer engagement?
This method of writing doesn't work because it begins with the end, rather than the beginning. The writer is starting with his conclusion and simply attaching facts and anecdotes as exemplification. But if the writer is not discovering anything, how can he maintain interest? If everything is a foregone conclusion, aren't things going to drag along? Yes, you do have to have a sense of where you're going — even a good sense of what it might be that you're saying — but exactly what gets said depends on the process, on how it gets said, on the ideas that come along as you write. As with the feature article, you certainly want a sense of direction and purpose before you start, but you don't want to constrain the idea so much that it can't breathe. That's where so many college essays die — Decomposition 101 might be a better label for Composition 101 — and it's why so many people end up hating writing. It's boring. There's nothing in it for the writers to discover about the world or themselves. And, of course, they think they have no ideas to voice anyway. This is why we need to consider what elements form the elusive personal essay. In some sense, the personal essay attempts to give the reader the impression that the writer is on a voyage of discovery. The word essayer comes from the French, meaning “to attempt, to try.” Notice that the word doesn't prescribe arriving at conclusions, solving weighty issues, or any mention of docking on Mt. Olympus in the section marked Muses & Artists Only. What that definition in fact suggests is engaging in the writing process, being willing to wrestle the inchoate ideas in your head into specific language and insight on the page. But if we've only got a rough idea about where we're going — a general theme if not an articulable thesis — then maybe our journey is a mystery tour. Which also implies that the literary essay — as opposed to a journalistic article — can wander. Could storytelling in business be of real value to your business?
But then what stops it from wandering all over the place? And what is actually filling the pages? A characteristic of the personal essay is a voice that seems to speak directly to the reader. It is an easy voice, a spoken voice, an intimate voice, that of a confidant. It is the voice of the writer. An essay gives the impression of a tête-à-tête between author and reader, the intimacy of the friendly, receptive ear cupped at the articulate mouth of an observant mind. A writer's experiences in life, filtered through the limitations and strengths of his character, articulated in his own words in his own singular way create a distinct vision of our shared existence as sentient beings. Your personal essay provides a window on the world, on our shared human experience. In the sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne, the patriarch of the essay, said, “It is myself I portray.” He was not suggesting that the essay was a nesting box for narcissists. In an essay, you often deal with conflicts within yourself or with aspects of life as they come at you from without. In so doing, you reveal yourself, certainly, but the primary interest of the reader is not the self-exposure, not the confessional nature of such personal writing, but rather the way that life presses on everyone. When you, as a writer, express things that readers recognize as somewhat akin to their own experience, you confirm their humanity; where you differ from others, your individuality and the individuality of those reading you are enhanced by being acknowledged, voiced, described, made plain in the light of day. The essay, then, provides an inner dialogue in an outfacing form. In seeking to make discoveries about your own life in an essay, you find patterns, meanings, and understanding that extend beyond you. Does storytelling for business really work?