Make them listen—and make them care

Using details like dialogue and vivid descriptions makes your story more memorable, meaningful and persuasive.

Telling stories is about more than conveying information. It’s about sharing experiences, engaging your audience, and convincing them to care about something important to you. Linguists like me are interested in how and why people tell stories—to entertain people, to share information about ourselves, or to impart moral lessons.

No matter what kind of story you’re telling, or why you’re telling it, storytelling is an effective communication strategy because it involves the audience. When you hear a story, you listen more closely. You can’t help but get caught up in the rhythm; your brain wants to figure out how it ends.

To tell a compelling story, the words you use are essential. One way to tell stories with maximum motivating power is by using details to vividly paint a scene. When you help your reader or listener picture the setting and the characters in their mind’s eye, you make them more engaged in what you’re saying. Dramatizing details like dialogue and vivid descriptions are what linguists call “involvement strategies”—ways to engage your reader or listener, help them understand the characters and their motivations, and help them see how the events you describe affect people’s lives.

Using dialogue brings your characters to life—creating empathy and understanding.

When you use dialogue to bring the people in your story to life, you invite your reader or listener into their heads—creating an emotional connection between your audience and the people in your story. Emotion plays a key role in improving your audience’s attention, retention and motivation; when you get people invested in the characters, they become invested in hearing more.

Many organizations, when communicating about their work, focus on their programs and organizational structures, instead the people who make that work possible. But often, your people are the most compelling part of your work. Stories that put your people front and center, and that use dialogue to bring the people in your organization to life makes your cause more human and relatable to your audience. If you can help your audience understand your mission and motivations, they’ll be more likely to respect your cause—and be motivated to help out.

In addition, many organizations talk about the people they serve using words like “poor” and “marginalized” that activate negative associations about those people—that they’re powerless victims, for example. The words you use to describe people activate associations in our audience’s minds—and influence what judgments they make about those characters. Instead of using language that raises mental obstacles that work against you, strive to use words that help your audience respect and empathize with these people. When you use dialogue to let the people you serve speak for themselves, you humanize them—and create positive associations in the minds of your audience. Your audience will see themselves in your characters—and be more motivated to pitch in.

Using vivid descriptions helps your audience understand the problem you’re working to solve—and the solution you offer.

When a writer describes an image, their reader recreates it in their mind based on their description. It’s where we get the word ‘imagine’—literally, ‘to form an image.’ The reader or listener is actively involved in recreating the story—making them more likely to intuitively understand it.

Many organizations articulate the problem they’re trying to solve, and the solution that their work offers, using abstract language that obscures the human consequences of the problem—and the real-world benefits of the solution. People are more likely to understand the severity of a problem if they can see its consequences for people’s lives. And they’re more likely to support a solution whose benefits they can picture. Using concrete language that creates images in the mind helps your audience understand why your work is important, and the value that you’re bringing to the table.

So in a story about a community facing food shortages, for example, don’t just talk about how a drought has reduced food supply by 30 percent. Paint a picture of brittle stalks and withered crops. Point to a mother struggling to feed her children. Show the food on the table—and the dishes that aren’t there this year. Strategically placing vivid details like these help your readers see the problem with their own eyes—making it more concrete and meaningful.