Blog post dated Feb 18, 2019

Storytelling in Technical Documentation

Off the Beaten Track

Do you still remember Felix Baumgartner's stratosphere jump in 2012? The record jump sponsored by Red Bull—which also became known as "Red Bull Stratos"—made history. The recordings of his daring feat along with the preparations and delays reached an audience of millions. But what does the jump have to do with technical documentation?

For some time, marketing departments in particular have been looking into the possibilities of storytelling. Recently, companies have started harnessing storytelling for technical documentation as well. Of course, this does not always necessitate an investment of €50 million as in the case of Red Bull. After all, the objective of technical documentation departments is not to pull a PR stunt, but rather to make user manuals and maintenance guides more attractive.

An Article by

Sandra Zeisberg
Technical Writer, Across Systems

Storytelling means conveying information by means of stories.

Storytelling means conveying information by means of stories. Knowledge presented in an appealing form tends to have a more lasting impact on the memory of readers, listeners, or viewers. Neurolinguists explain why this is so: Our brain prefers to think in pictures. When the brain receives information that it can easily convert into images, a mental film is set off. This process is hardly possible with dry facts.

By wrapping up information in a thrilling story, companies make it easier for people to digest. What it is more, it will not be forgotten easily.

Storytelling Jazzes up Technical Documentation

Companies can make use of storytelling in technical documentation in order to facilitate the flow of information and intensify the bond with the reader. To reach these goals, it is advisable to use the problem-solution approach. Frankly, users will not use a technical guide for bedtime reading, but rather to get assistance when they encounter specific problems.

Stories are meant to reduce complexity, initiate the cognitive processes required to solve the problem, and motivate the user to act. If this can be achieved, the provider is on the right track and will deliver a light-bulb moment.

Though storytelling is not suitable for all audiences, companies should consider using it for end-user products that require explanation. Of course, the overhead for this is greater than for a string of plain information. However, the effort should pay in the form of higher customer satisfaction and a more positive image.

On the other hand, service staff or experts might feel irritated by stories. For such target audiences, the information needs to be presented in a factual, down-to-earth, and logical manner.

Depending on the products or services to be explained, storytelling can be employed in texts, self-explanatory videos, or e-learning material. The selection depends primarily on the product complexity. Usually, video guides are more readily understood and thus increase the user satisfaction. For example, consider the tutorials published by The Home Depot, which describe the installation of laminate flooring, tiles, etc. step by step.

Companies can make use of storytelling in technical documentation in order to facilitate the flow of information.

Good Preparation Is Half the Work

Regardless of the stylistic means you decide to employ, you first need to define the content to be communicated. For this, you need to ascertain the target audience of the respective technical documentation. To describe a target audience in specific terms, you can use the method of buyer personas.

You can create various personas with different knowledge levels and different interests. Accordingly, it might be necessary to develop several approaches for the same subject.

Analyze typical customer inquiries or recurring support requests in order to understand the user behavior. This will show which content of the respective technical documentation should be communicated (more clearly).

Our Hero: The Protagonist

Once the problems have been identified, the crucial question is which of the themes can be implemented in the form of a story. For this, you could develop a protagonist. However, you should consider whether this makes sense. After all, you do not want it to make a negative impression, as was the case with Clippy, the Office Assistant that Microsoft had integrated in its Office products until 2004.

If you decide to use a protagonist, choose a character that can be localized for all your target markets. Ideally, the figure should also appear in other areas of the corporate communication, e.g. in a chatbot.

If used continually, the reader will increasingly identify himself with the protagonist. The reader will project his questions and problems to the protagonist and be happy when the protagonist finds the solutions the reader is also looking for.

If used continually, the reader will increasingly identify himself with the protagonist.

Methods of Storytelling

Various tips on storytelling methods are available on the Internet. For example, Alan Porter's article on LinkedIn draws attention to ten commandments of storytelling applied to technical content. For an in-depth examination of this subject, there are various books about the art of business storytelling.

Lean storytelling is a relatively simple, but nevertheless effective method developed by Thomas Pyczak. It is based on the principle of "reducing content step by step to the maximum".

Under consideration of the big picture, the information to be communicated is successively broken down to the relevant facts. For this purpose, the author follows a learning cycle with the three stations write, tell, and learn. After every cycle, he incorporates the feedback from the target group in his previous story, thereby making it increasingly precise. For this, Thomas Pyczak offers a free canvas as an implementation aid (in German).

For an instruction manual, for example, this would mean that you would first put down the content, then communicate it, and subsequently fine-tune it on the basis of the feedback received. To get feedback, you can e.g. ask your support department how customer inquiries have changed. The insight gained thus enables you to progressively optimize your instruction manuals.

Write Your Story!

Now let's get down to business. A good introduction is a key requirement to motivate the reader to examine your story. Often, the first sentence is decisive. It should arouse curiosity or be thought-provoking. You can do so by means of questions and answers concerning a problem or by drawing attention to the benefits of your product.

Tabloid newspapers demonstrate how to effectively stir up curiosity: Their headlines prominently feature questions or striking statements in order to encourage people who line up in a gas station or elsewhere to buy the paper.

After the first sentence—the door opener—the goal is to unfold a scenario that will capture the audience's attention. It would be advisable to deliver answers to typical user questions in each chapter.

Arouse curiosity by means of questions and answers concerning a problem or by drawing attention to the benefits of your product.

Mum's Visit and the Smart TV

Example: We want to prepare an instruction manual for a smart TV. We have decided to use a protagonist whom we have described in detail using the buying persona method. Our protagonist is a man called Peter.

To give him clear instructions in the form of stories, we assume that he is an ardent soccer fan. To make sure he never misses any of his favorite sports updates on TV, Peter has purchased a smart TV along with the required apps.

For example, the instruction manual could start with a sentence such as "Never miss any sports updates! “, followed by a basic description of the functionality.

In this context, images are very helpful. You might also want to use recurring visual elements, e.g. to highlight questions, answers, or summaries. You could expand the scenario for Peter's story by adding other stories.

"As you are looking forward to the sports update in the evening, the phone suddenly rings. It's your mum, who wants to enjoy dinner with you in the evening. Don't worry, you can still watch the sports update after she leaves!" Or perhaps: "Was that a genuine foul? Become your own video assistant referee!"

This could be followed by an explanation of how Peter can replay a scene second by second. With this or other real-life examples, you can help your users to get to know their device. Peter's example can also be easily adapted to other countries and other sports (UK: cricket, Asia: table tennis).

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The Power of Language

No matter how thrilling a story is, it will be dull if presented in poor language. For example, the passive voice, excessive use of buzzwords, and nested sentences need to be avoided.

In a white paper (in German), our technology partner Congree Language Technologies has summarized the rules for effective corporate communication. We recommend applying the rules presented in the white paper in storytelling as well in order to "automatically" enhance the comprehensibility of texts. A carefully written source text is also beneficial for any subsequent translations. Any existing wording should be reviewed for compliance with these rules.

Do Not Forget about the Translation

When developing the story, it would be advisable to cooperate with the marketing department and the customer service team. Perhaps it would also be beneficial to get some creative support from specialized agencies.

While developing the story, the subsequent rollout to other countries should also be taken into consideration. This includes the uniform use of terminology, which will enhance the consistency and comprehensibility and reduce the translation overhead. As in connection with the development of the protagonist, the different cultures and fields of interest in the respective countries must be taken into consideration.

Last, but not least, the more consistent use of terminology will enable better search results (SEO). Try to match the terminology with keywords that most people in the respective target countries will search for. You can learn more about how to correctly localize keywords in our free white paper How to be Successful in E-Commerce with the Right Translation.

While developing the story, the subsequent rollout to other countries should also be taken into consideration.

Conclusion

The use of storytelling in technical documentation requires a good amount of courage. You need to know how to implement it and what the benefits will be. Good storytelling cannot be achieved solely by the documentation department, but also requires collaboration with other units such as the marketing department. Together, you should determine the terminology to be used and ensure a uniform corporate image. The translation process benefits from consistent corporate terminology.

If the terminology is clearly defined and stored in a database, the translators will not have to re-translate specialized terms over and over again. This will boost the company's recognition value and cut translation costs on a long-term basis. Moreover, a uniform approach will have a positive impact on the customer perception and help to optimize your website for search engines.

Checklist

  • Analyze whether storytelling is a suitable method for your company. Does it suit the target audience?
  • Consider what type of content the company could convey by means of storytelling (texts, videos, e-learning, etc.).
  • Describe the target group with the buyer persona method in order to, if need be, develop several approaches for the same subject.
  • Use the problem-solution approach in order to convey content more effectively.
  • Develop a protagonist whom (potential) customers can identify with.
  • When rolling out a new story, keep the subsequent translation in mind in order to avoid localization errors.
  • Research and apply methods for more creativity in order to continually develop your storytelling skills.