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The Elements of Wharton Storytelling

A good story connects with the reader. A Wharton story builds trust between the reader and the Wharton School.

In practice, this means you can use classic elements of storytelling to connect with a reader on an emotional or personal level. Storytelling craft transforms testimonials into stories that readers believe and understand on a deeper level.

Most of the following elements fit most neatly into a profile but can figure into listicle or event coverage as well. You don’t have to have all of these elements in every story, but a story with three or four will be more compelling and effective. Your story will be more likely to be a featured Wharton Stories story shared across Wharton sites and social media instead of a single-site blog post.

Subject (People)

Institutions don’t do things. People do things.

The story has to be about a person or several people. If it’s about an event, it should find a person or people to be the focus of the events. The subject could be an active participant in the activities or occasionally an observer.

Conflict

The story must have conflict to be overcome. It could be a personal or internal conflict. It could be an external problem that the subject must solve or the event must address. It could be an intellectual question or problem that must be answered.

Don’t be afraid to show mistakes, missteps, and challenges. Relatable people have flaws and face problems. Good stories show how they overcome and learn from them.

Action/Agency

A strong subject has agency and makes things happen. In a fantasy, the subject may slay the dragon. In a Wharton story, the subject could be answering a question, solving a conflict, or drawing lessons from an event or experience.

Narrative Arc (Takeaways)

The subject of the story show grow and learn something during the events recounted. If the subject is an observer of the events, they must learn and have insightful analysis. This could be a simple quoted observation or the framework for the story – “7 lessons learned,” “5 takeaways,” etc.

Voice

The Wharton voice is clear, warm, confident, insightful, and engaged. Wharton’s voice varies in formality according to the story, but we report, recount, describe, explain, inform, advise. We avoid obvious marketing, selling, or advocating.

Point of View

When Wharton is telling a story, use third person. In a profile, close third person can be appropriate, when the writer is able to interprets or retells what the subject is thinking, saying, or doing.

When giving advice or instructions, use second person.

Blog posts from personal experience (eg, student) or from a specific administrative position (eg, associate dean of admissions) can be first person.

Quote Selection

Quotes should never be empty of meaning or content – they must serve a purpose.
We all know that sometimes you must quote a person because you need to include them, but push to make sure that the quotes add to the story.

Quoted people should speak conversationally with a personal point of view, saying something that Wharton as neutral reporter may not say or know. They should be specific, and expressing emotions when appropriate.

If you could say it better and more clearly in exposition, use exposition.

Immediacy, Specificity, Vividness, and Detail

A single snapshot can be more revealing than a long overview. Aim to show a moment in a time, with specific details. Push further on general statements. Use vivid word choices. Avoid jargon, superlatives, and empty modifiers.

Everyone knows the mantra “show, don’t tell.” The elements of storytelling are how you do it.

Other guiding principles to keep in mind that creates more meaningful communications: A Wharton Story doesn’t say how great Wharton is. It creates connections between readers and the Wharton School and shows flaws and challenges along the way.

A Wharton Stories Rhyme to Guide You:

Show, don’t tell
Engage, don’t sell
Connect, don’t impress
Challenges before success

Have questions about this post? Get in touch with Kelly Andrews at kellyja@wharton.upenn.edu.

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