04/28/2012 01:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Five Communication Literacies You Need to Know


When telling stories, I throw myself into them! Photo by Gregoire Seyrig.

"So, like, there was, like, this one guy once who was so totally awesome..."

ZZZZZzzzzz... Most of us, thankfully, aren't this horrible at telling stories, but we still aren't very good at it. In my last blog post I talked about how to make sure you're telling the right story. Here I'm covering how to tell it well. Nowadays, to successfully capture and hold people's attention to sell them something, get them to donate for a cause or just entertain them you need to have a command of five critical communication illiteracies (I had said "four" in my last blog post, but we can all change our minds!):

  1. Creative
  2. Verbal
  3. Visual
  4. Technical
  5. Theatrical

So why is a combination of all of these so important? Because now we're ALL publishers. In the not-so-good old days we could type up a imaginative story or film a brilliant little movie, but it was crazy-hard getting anyone to publish them for others to see. Now, anything we can imagine can be consumed by the masses, if it's worth consuming.

1) Creative literacy: Yes, creativity is a form of literacy, meaning you can learn it.
The best part of a good story is not knowing what's going to happen next. If the story you're telling is one we've all heard before then a mastery of the other four literacies is mute. No surprises = boring, regardless of the bells and whistles you tack on.

Luckily, creative ideas can be brainstormed, and there are tried and true ways to do this using simple techniques. Mostly, it comes down to divergent and then convergent thinking, which means scribbling out a million ideas, many of them seemingly unrelated or crazy, finding interesting connections between them and then whittling them down to the best ones. (A couple of friends of mine wrote a great little book that will help you get started called Gamestorming, which offers a lot of fun games to help individuals or groups generate creative ideas).

2) Verbal literacy: There has definitely been a spiraling-down of our language. "He and I" is morphing to "me and him" and cranking out emails has killed the fine art of letter writing. Conversational language has its place and does little harm, but when it comes to engaging people you have to tickle their imaginations, toy with their emotions and have them on the edges of their seats. This takes a mastery of wordsmithing for clarity and style, the ability to weave words together in compelling ways. How do you learn this? By writing every day, taking a class, forming a writing group or all of the above. And stick with it, you will get better!

3) Visual literacy: So, if everyone can shoot a photo or a video, what's there to be literate about? That's just it, everyone's doing it so you need to make yours stand out, and this takes an understanding of basic design principals and techniques and then applying them to whatever visual challenge you're dealing with. The word "design" in visual storytelling means giving structure to chaos and doing so in fresh and engaging ways. Knowing how to pace out a story, employ color, compose a shot and work with type are all things that can be learned. Take a class or at the very least read up on it. There are plenty of books and blogs that detail each of these.

4) Technical literacy: You don't need to know how to actually use every kind of software there is out there, but at the very least you need to know what's possible to do, things like edit a movie, narrate a photo slideshow, animate a presentation in Powerpoint or Keynote and plot an interactive data map or chart. Then you can work with others to create your vision. But if you do want to learn how to do something yourself, there are plenty of tutorials available. I have a bunch of my own free tutorials on a variety of visual software.

5) Theatrical literacy: In my last blog post I said that our goal in storytelling is often to "educate and persuade" people to do something: donate, buy, etc. But to do this you need to engage them, to hold their attention long enough to get the message across. When I was a kid, my camp counselor told the best stories around the fire pit. He became the characters in the story and he knew how to manipulate our emotions and create excitement by throwing his whole body and voice into his narrative. It was so thrilling that the real world around as we lost ourselves in our imaginations.

Whether you're writing or telling a tale, you need to engage your audience. Take a public speaking or better yet an acting class! Observe how others tell stories and emulate them!

Good luck!!!