Are you making this common mistake with your storytelling?

If you’ve read my work for awhile, you know that I love story packaging: quizzes and Q&As, infographics and annotations, timelines and lists.

But do you know what storytelling format to use when?

Sure, you know that your 100th anniversary package should probably include a timeline. But should that profile be a Q&A, an as-told-to, or a straight narrative? Does it really matter?

It actually does matter!

Each story format conveys information in slightly different ways. The story formats will lead your reader to make certain assumptions and to feel certain ways.

The more you understand how each story format works, the more you can maximize its potential. You can avoid using a format that fights against the larger emotion or tone you’re trying to convey.

I realize this all sounds pretty vague. So let’s dig in with a few concrete examples, starting with two approaches that — on the surface — appear strikingly similar: the Q&A and the as-told-to story.

Both approaches are typically used to share the perspective or story of a single individual. (Though a Q&A technically has two voices in it.) Both give significant weight to the source’s own words, rather than the writer’s. But the similarities end there.

What are some of the key differences and how does that mean you should deploy them most effectively?

The emotional wallop of as-told-to storytelling

The as-told-to storytelling approach is an excellent way to tell stories that are personal and emotional. As-told-to stories put people in the shoes of others at key moments of their lives as they narrate what they saw, heard, experienced, and felt.

For example, here’s a story I did with a few other folks called “What does it feel like to…” for Purdue Alumnus. (Yes, that is a super cool centerfold design, and the brains behind that is the A+ team at ESC.)

Alumni told us what it felt like to swallow fire, win a Pulitzer, and work in Antarctica.

And let’s be honest, you don’t want my words telling you what those things are like. You want theirs! An as-told-to format works perfectly in this case.

More recently, I did “In Medias Res,” a story for Kenyon Magazine with editor Elizabeth Weinstein and the knockout design of EmDash.

For this story, we stepped into the shoes of hospital chaplains, journalists, and educators (among others) as the world was shutting down from Covid.

Yes, all of us all had Covid stories! But these men and women shared what it felt like to be them at precarious moments, when they had to make incredibly difficult decisions at a moment of extreme uncertainty. An as-told-to format allows a reader to experience the person’s emotional journey just as they did.

These stories often require some serious editing to get them just right, and it’s essential to get buy-in from the sources once you’ve written it.

The payoff? A riveting read.

What they really think: transparency through Q&As

A Q&A is an excellent approach to help someone important share their viewpoints in a way that feels, to a reader, more transparent and genuine.

That sense of authenticity is why new college presidents are often introduced with a Q&A: Here’s an example with the University of Cincinnati’s new president, here’s another with the new president of the University of Georgia, and here’s a third with Harvard’s prez.

Q&As allow an interviewer to address dicey or controversial topics and to give the subject of the interview a chance to tackle the topic head on.

In cases like these, the interviewer is a stand-in for the reader: you want to be the one asking the questions — both common and difficult — that everybody has for this person.

Q&A’s are also a good way to cover a huge range of topics in a way that doesn’t make a reader feel whiplash.

For example, this “getting to know you” Q&A with an incoming dean for the University of Chicago Magazine covers classroom experiences, good advice for students, and her desire to have Mindy Kaling write her life story. (Who wouldn’t want that, tbh?)

Every question is a chance to go in a new direction.

The big idea

These are just a few examples, but the larger point is this: the way you tell a story matters. The right packaging can emphasize the feelings you want your readers to have — while the wrong packaging can fight what you’re trying to do.

There’s not an exact science to this! Start noticing how different types of story formats make you feel when you read them — and how you might be able to use that knowledge as you work on future projects.

If you want a list of some of the approaches that my team and I routinely rely on as we develop projects, check out this storytelling toolkit we developed and use.