5 Staples of Storytelling from The Elements of Style

You probably know the name E.B. White from such childhood gems as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, but he also co-authored a book with William Strunk Jr. in 1918 that has made a lasting impression on the world of writing called The Elements of Style.

The ultimate English writing style guide is made up of rules of usage, composition and form as well as words and expressions that are commonly misspelled. Granted it sounds like a bore, but there’s much in the venerable book that we can use to better our presentations.

“Choose a suitable design and hold to it.”

It’s important to choose a particular style before you even begin crafting your presentation. As Strunk and White say: “Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.” Instead of embracing a stream of consciousness style where you’re not sure where you’re going, know where you want your presentation to end up and determine how best to get there at the beginning.

“Use the active voice.”

As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, an active voice is more effective than a passive one because it’s “more direct and vigorous than the passive…” An active voice is indicative of confidence and straightforwardness, which is a much more effective tone than passivity, which suggests feebleness and ambiguity.

Moreover, Strunk and White note that the active voice makes a sentence stronger, and “when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.” And as we’ve long established, brevity is best in presentations.

“Use definite, specific, concrete language.”

As we noted in our discussion of Made to Stick awhile back, language is abstract, but life is not, so we need to cut out abstraction as much as possible in our presentations. Like Strunk and White write, “The greatest writers­–– Homer, Dante, Shakespeare–– are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.” Root your words in reality as much as possible. Make them as easily accessible as possible for your audience.

“Omit needless sentences.”

Strunk and White put a beautiful spin on what we’ve always preached here at Ethos3: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

Cut out the extraneous. If it’s not essential, get rid of it.

“Be clear.”

You might not have thought about clarity this way, but consider Strunk and White’s take on it: “Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope… think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear!”

Be as straightforward as possible with your words. Don’t mislead or misdirect your audience by using words that are unclear or ambiguous. Be as clear as possible!

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