How The Pope Helped Me Become a Better Storyteller
It was news that rocked the nerd world. Sensational headlines last year proclaimed that a computer program in England had become the first to pass the so-called Turing Test. The condensed version of the test proposed by the tortured computer genius Alan Turing back in 1950 is that an observer watches a text-only conversation between a computer program and a human, and must determine which is which. If the observer thinks that the computer is human 30% or more of the time, the machinery has passed the test.
As it turned out, the press release from The University of Reading was a little hyped, so we’re apparently not on the verge of surrendering to our robot overlords – yet.
Turing wanted to answer the question: “Can Machines Think?” But it seems to me his test really determines whether a non-human computer can carry on a believable human conversation.
If you consider yourself a storyteller, you’re constantly facing a kind of Turing Test. Your challenge, whether you’re writing something for entertainment or business communications, is to create a believable conversation. By which I mean this: if I’m your audience, do I believe I’m being engaged, and therefore more inclined to listen to you, or just being talked at? The most powerful way to engage your audience is to talk to them … like you’re talking to them.
Sure, there’s a place for stiff, formal language, but somewhere else – like legal briefs, contracts, medical reports, laws, things that are meant to record exact details for posterity. Not here, not if you’re trying to spin an enchanting tale or spread an interesting idea. So, if you see something on the screen or page that doesn’t seem like something you’d actually say, hit delete and try again.
To me, writing conversationally means being a little relaxed in style, because that’s how I (and most people) converse in daily life. I use a lot of contractions (I can see all of my business communications friends cringing). I start sentences with “And” and “But” (now I can see my high school English teachers cringing). I don’t use jargon or clichés – that’s not conversational, that’s lazy. And, very importantly, as I write I constantly think about the people I’m trying to communicate with (yes, I know that’s supposed to be “with whom I’m trying to communicate,” but … conversational).
Which brings me to my story about the Pope.
During my days as an international news correspondent for The Associated Press Radio Network, I was a very serious news guy. A little too serious sometimes, maybe, but I got better. One of the stories I got to cover was Pope John Paul II’s world travels.
During a visit to Colombia, JPII went off-script in one of his prepared homilies and started scolding local priests who were supporting left-wing organizations actively opposing right-wing governments in the region. This was kind of big-ish news. I have to admit that many of the American reporters who covered these trips didn’t attend every event, because were so many of them. In this case, I was at the media hotel, and a wire service colleague tipped me off to the story. I read through his copy and wrote up my radio report, using formal news-speak, as I was wont to do. Something like:
“Speaking at a large outdoor mass, Pope John Paul II departed from his prepared speech to chastise priests who support left-wing movements in Latin America. It was an unusual move for the Pope, indicating the Vatican’s concerns …” blah, blah, blah.
I transmitted my story, then went down to the pool, where I saw a colleague who worked for one of the commercial radio networks in the U.S. As I’d been “breaking news,” he was lounging with Piña Coladas. When I told him about the Pope’s comments, he said, “Well, that seems worth reporting. Let me see what you wrote.” We went up to my room, where I showed him my formally worded, factually laden script, and he asked me to hand him my phone. He dialed a lot of numbers, then I heard him say: “Master Control? Roll tape in 3, 2, 1 … The Pope is mad! So mad that he went on a rant during mass here in Colombia, telling radical priests they’re gonna be in big trouble if they don’t start listening to him …”
That wasn’t what I had written, the words he was looking at. But I realized that it was definitely how someone might tell the story to a friend. And I realized which version of the tale I’d find more engaging and interesting as a listener. Unfortunately, it wasn’t mine.
I got a lesson that day that’s helped guide my writing and storytelling ever since: just having your facts straight, just having a story to tell, doesn’t mean you’ll tell a good (and effective) story. Of course there are exceptions (aren’t there always?), but for most occasions, if you want someone to hear what you have to say, don’t lecture them, have a conversation with them. Or, at the very least, write like that’s what’s happening.
As always, I welcome any feedback you may have on my thoughts, because you learn by listening.