Do great stories live forever?

Around 600 B.C. the storyteller Aesop began to chronicle fables from around the civilized world. He became famous, and he traveled many places to share tales with both kings and commoners.

His stories—like the one about the tortoise and the hare—gave animals human qualities. His fables pointed out people’s good and bad traits, and they illustrated critical life lessons.

I always wondered how long his stories were. So, I chose a few at random, and counted the words.

The one about “The Tortoise and the Hare” ran about 172 words in the version I saw. The one titled “The Lion and the Mouse” – the story where the mouse pulls a thorn from a suffering lion’s paw – contained 178 words.

What do these stories have in common? They’ve lived for 2,600 years, and they are all super-short. Each can be read aloud in about one minute.

Maybe Aesop invented this technique because he knew we’d need it more than ever today.

12 ways to use minute messages

How many ways could you begin using short, condensed messages today?

Seems like everybody wants an instant solution to almost any problem. Because of this, today’s writer must get to the point quickly, reinforce opinion with facts, and stick to one single subject.

1. Single-page introduction for a company or product.

2. Speech introduction for any event (150 words = about one minute).

3. Single-page company press release.

4. One-minute radio-style sound commercial.

5. Short biographies of your employees or leading community citizens.

6. As a Hall of Fame biography you can use to honor anyone.

7. As a birthday surprise biography for a family member.

8. Company fact sheets or corporate biography.

9. Advertising and public relations – Many of the techniques discussed here can help you create copy for minute or half-minute radio or television commercials.

10. As a “Sorry I missed your call…” recorded message for your office or cell phone.

11. As a sound feature for your company’s web site.

12. As an mp3 (audio) attachment you can send with an e-mail message to new readers or potential customers.

See Rix’s new e-book “How to Sell Ideas with the Minute Message”:

What can you say in one minute?

 As you know, short messages and stories are centuries old. But I want to emphasize the major reasons ultra-short message delivery makes sense for 21st century newspaper, magazine, newsletter, memo, or e-mail.

1. The average person’s reading speed is about 250 words per minute.

2. The length of an average local television news story is about 41 seconds. The length of today’s average movie scene is about 90 seconds.

3. The typical radio or television advertisement is 30 seconds to 60 seconds long. That’s about 75 to 150 words.

4. The approximate length of one of Aesop’s Fables is about 250 words.

5. If the average newspaper feature is about 800 words, you can fit about three minute messages into the same space as one 800-word feature.

6. They are the ideal length for editorials, letters to the editor, weather forecasts, civic club reports, how-to, self-help, and question-answer columns.

7. A 150-word feature can easily be recorded in a radio-style audio, which can be placed on a publication’s or corporation’s web site. It’s another way to communicate with an audience.

8. A publication or newsletter can also use a minute message to create advertising for clients.

Print plus sound = double impressions

The biggest change I’ve seen in the last seven years – for both magazines and newspapers – is the growth of online editions.

Online editions, I feel, require a slightly different approach. My prediction is that stories will gradually become more condensed to meet the demands of these readers.     

Another change: Online media allows links to audio and video. I already record lots of one-minute sound ads for magazine publishers. The publication can offer these messages to clients (a) as a stand-alone radio-style ad message or (b) as a value-added premium.

Either way, the goal is to generate additional response to each story or ad. Reaching not only the eyes — but also the ears — can double the potential for memorability.  

From town crier to town newspaper

Before the printing press, it was mighty tough to get the morning news! During the middle ages, town criers in small villages yelled the news each day. But if that strong-voiced newsman caught a cold, that could be catastrophic.
The earliest newsletters – or just plain information letters — started even earlier. In ancient times, they were sent to friends, community leaders, or officials. By the middle ages, they were often business-related, and concerned prices or availability of products that might affect commerce.
The “modern” newspaper began later, in about 1609. Many of us would define it as a collection of general news and feature stories that updates national and local events on a regular basis, like daily or weekly.
In your paper, do you prefer shorter or longer stories? I prefer shorter, and I’ll tell you why in the next post. 

Print vs. Sound

A New York Times article (“The Mouth is Mightier Than the Pen”) says this: “New research shows that text-based communications may make individuals sound less intelligent and employable than when the same information is communicated orally. 

The findings imply that old-fashioned phone conversations or in-person visits may be more effective when trying to impress a prospective employer, or, perhaps, close the deal.”

For print media, sound offers a supplementary method of information delivery. In addition to running the feature or ad in the paper, the publisher could also (1) carry an audio link on the publication’s web site and (2) give the advertiser the audio file to e-mail to prospects.

Storyteller supreme

The ancient writer Aesop wrote tales that (1) began with a single character (usually an animal) faced with (2) a conflict — or villain — creating the problem. They ended with (3) the problem solved and/or (4) a lesson learned (“moral” of the story).

What’s the secret of these early stories? (1) a captivating first paragraph that presents a dilemma, (2) a main character continuously faced with choices, (3) building of tension as story’s resolution nears, and (4) a logical ending.

We writers MUST remember this because:

The average American reading level is 7th or 8th grade. Many top novels are written at the 7th grade level.

About 14% of the U.S. population cannot read. They must obtain information from other sources…like TV and radio.

So we must constantly remind ourselves that brevity counts! The average local TV news story today averages only 41 seconds. The average movie scene is only 90 seconds. Radio ad lengths with the greatest recall scores are 60 seconds.

Learning through the ears

A March1983 story in Advertising Age Magazine by Al Ries and Jack Trout presented strong evidence that the mind is more influenced by what it hears than by what it sees. “Your mind must translate printed words into their spoken equivalents before it can understand them.”

Writers should speak their stories before they write them down. Why?

Most children learn values through (1) simple instruction, (2) constant repetition, and (3) stories being told to them.

In the pre-literate world – before writing or reading – information was passed from one generation to another by storytelling.

Then, about 2,500 years ago, the writer Aesop (and perhaps other writers) created a storytelling format of 150-250 words. There are about 750 Aesop’s Fables.

Most of Aesop’s stories (1) began with a single character (usually an animal) faced with (2) a conflict — or villain — creating the problem. They ended with (3) the problem solved and/or (4) a lesson learned (“moral” of the story).

What messages do people remember?

I’ve been in the publications industry for over 35 years, and here’s what I’ve found through personal experience:

 1. While the major components of an ad are size, reach, and frequency, the most important is frequency. The more times a message gets seen, the better the chance it will be remembered.

2. The television and radio ads I remember best are those that start out with a problem, and then propose a solution.

3. The most memorable ads I’ve see do not point out why their product is better, but why it is different.

4. My reading has convinced me that if sound messages are presented in a “story” format, they can be incredibly effective.

5. If you want to get your message remembered, it’s helpful to appeal to as many senses as possible. That’s why and ad that can be HEARD as well as SEEN can be so beneficial.

And that’s another reason why Aesop remains so popular today. 

Value of condensed stories

Today we are overwhelmed with messages coming from radio, TV, newspapers, billboards, and myriad social media. Which ones are most valuable? Which ones hold our attention?

Here are three interesting statistics: the length of an average local TV news story is 41 seconds. The most popular lengths of TV and radio commercials are 30 and 60 seconds. And today, the average length of a movie scene is only 90 seconds. 

What’s the message? Grab people’s attention with the first sentence. Get to the point quickly. Make sure to reinforce the main points you want the reader to remember. 

Who are the all-time masters of this art? One of the first was Aesop, and we’ll talk about his fables in an upcoming chapter.