How Storytelling Can Help You Understand Your Customers

How well do you know your customers? You may have some idea – you know the demographic you’re looking to reach or where they life. But do you really know them on an intimate? In this week’s blog, I’m going to show you how authors develop their characters, and how you can be inspired by their techniques to create content that really speaks to those customers.

Authors know everything about their characters. They don’t include all those details in their stories, but they know about every aspects of their characters’ lives. That’s what helps them create a character that’s realistic and believable as a human being. They create a character sketch of their characters. It’s like a profile, a life story of a character created using various headings.

For you as a business owner, a character sketch is a great way to get to know your customers. You’d create a character sketch based on a particular customer who represents your target market. They could be a real person or someone you’d make up. The idea is that you can visualise this customer every time you write content and you can write your content for them. This allows you to create content with a friendly, intimate tone, helping your customers to feel like you’re a wise friend who understands your problems and can help them improve their lives.

So, how do you create a character sketch?

Basic Character Details

Let’s start with the basics. Give them a name and age. You can just choose a random name, but giving your customer a name makes it easier for you to imagine them as a person. Knowing their age is very useful. It helps you imagine them as a person. You can call them by that name when you’re writing your content and that’ll help you imagine you’re addressing what you say to them.

Here’s Maurice Murgatroyd, the star of my content creation course. I ask participants to practise their character creation skills on him. The results are interesting.

This is a charcoal type sketch of an old, grumpy looking mad with a pointy beard and a long face. He’s bald with spots on his head.

Another good way of visualising your customer is to find a profile picture of a person that represents your customer. You can download a stock picture from the internet and stick that photo up on a wall so you can see the customer in your mind when you’re writing your content. Or you can add a picture to the written details on your customer profile.

Life Details

This section of the character sketch is about a customer’s life circumstances. These are the circumstances that help shape their purchasing behaviour. Knowing their educational background and job will give you an idea of the income they have available to spend. Their family circumstances will determine what products and services they’ll buy. People with children will want to buy family-friendly products, while single people may want to buy high-end products to treat themselves with. Even a customer’s hobbies will shape their buying habits, as they’ll need to buy products that help them take part in their hobby.

Buying Habits

There are a few ingredients that will differentiate your character sketch from an author’s one. Where authors will identify their character’s secret power, or secret from their past, you’re identifying their purchasing power, or the ways they decide to purchase. One of the ways that people decide on their purchases is through the media. Increasingly, this means social media. If you know what media your target audience consumes, you can follow them onto those media platforms and communicate with them there. If you know where they shop, you know what types of shops they favour and what they buy when they’re in those shops. You can then appeal to customers whose consumer habits match the types of offerings you have.

Solving Their Problems

Your customers are coming to you because they have a problem they hope you can solve. This needn’t be a big problem. It could just be something they’re missing, a need that isn’t being met. The most important part of your character sketch is the section about the problem your customer would like solved. If you know what that problem is, you can create content that shows them how you solve that problem. They’ll then trust you to solve that problem, and they’ll buy from you.

How Character Sketches Help You Reach Your Customers

So, what’s the benefit of doing this character sketch? The isn’t a tangible result as such, but there is a result just the same. The character sketch helps you keep focused on your customers’ needs when you’re creating your content. When customers are reading your content, you want them to feel that they’re sitting across the table, having a coffee with you, and you understand where they’re coming from. And with that content, you can show them that they can trust you to help them improve their lives.

If you like the idea of character-driven content and you’d like me to help you create some, please give me (Derbhile) a call on 0876959799.

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Writing with the Visually Impaired: The Next Level

On Saturday, I’ll be giving the next in my series of creative writing workshops for the visually impaired. It’ll be at the National Council for the Blind in Dublin, Ireland. It’ll be a memoir workshop using the three-act structure, which worked very well at the last workshop. The pieces will be on the theme of journeys.

Journeys can be quite different experiences for visually impaired people. Without sight, they become a feast for the senses in other ways. And even the most everyday journeys, to the shops or on a bus, can turn into adventures. That’s the theme we’ll be exploring, not just in this workshop, but in a bigger workshop that I have in mind.

How visually impaired people write. Photo source: NCBI Website.

A Full-Scale Project

I’ve been feeling for some time that I want to go to the next level with the writing workshops I give, to help individual people and groups to fulfil their ambitions to be published in some form. With regard to these workshops, I’ve been thinking for some time about a radio-based writing project and now I’ve taken the plunge. I’m applying for the Artist in the Community Scheme to create a piece of spoken-word art for radio.

I’m conscious that ultimately, this is my ambition, and the group I’ve been working with may be happy to keep going as we are. So to make it easier for them to take part in the project, it’s going to be an oral storytelling project rather than strictly a writing project. That takes the pressure off anyone who finds writing a piece for broadcast intimidating. And it allows the group’s natural storytelling abilities to shine through.


I haven’t done a collaborative arts project before. My own instinct is to give people their individual voice and let them write their own pieces. But telling a story as a group will widen the appeal of the project. So I’m applying for the Research with Mentoring strand of the funding. This will give me the chance to work with someone who has done collaborative arts projects before.

If I get the funding, I will be the one leading the project. I will create this piece of spoken-word art based on what the group of participants share with me. But I will also make sure that each of their voices is heard, as part of a greater tapestry of voices. Though it wasn’t quite what I envisaged when I first thought of doing this kind of project, I now realise it will still give the participants a taste of the power and liberation that the arts can bring. And that is my ultimate goal.

I’ll be keeping you updated about my progress with the application and whether I’m successful. If not, I will find other ways.

What Is A Big Picture Edit?

Last week, I did what I call a big picture edit for a client who wanted two short stories evaluated. Big picture edit is the writerly term that I like to put on it, but officially this kind of editing is called developmental editing. Developmental editors differ from proofreaders and copy editors because rather than zero in on spelling, grammar and other details, they look at the whole story. They give in-depth evaluations of the overall story, the bits that work and the bits that don’t. Authors can then use their feedback to drive the story forward.

Developmental editors will help you develop your story.
Developmental editors will help you develop your story.

What aspects of a story do developmental editors look at?

Storytelling Techniques: Developmental editors focus on authors use the building blocks of story: character and how they interact, settling and plot. They will tell you whether the point of view you have used for your story is convincing, whether your dialogue sounds natural and what you can do to give your story momentum. For example, I may tell an author that there needs to be more conflict in their character interactions, or that the story needs a defining event to make it more interesting for readers.

Technical Points: When I do a developmental edit, I don’t correct spelling, grammar or sentence structure, but I do highlight consistent errors that need to be corrected. They will also advise on layout issues, such as the correct way to lay out dialogue. I will comment on how effectively the author uses language overall and flag up instances where authors over-rely on certain words, or choose words that aren’t appropriate to the context of the sentence.

When should I go for a developmental edit?

It is not a good idea to go for a developmental edit until you have at least edited your first draft yourself. Any earlier than that and the editor’s input may interfere too much with the development of the story. There are two reasons to use a developmental editor. One is if you feel you’ve done all you can with the story, but it’s still lacking, and you want to know how to take it to the next level. The other is if you want to assess whether your story is ready for publication or not.

What are the benefits of a developmental edit??

A lot of authors use a team of “beta readers,” who read the manuscript and give their feedback. This is certainly useful, but the problem is that a lot of the time, these beta readers are known to the authors. A developmental editor will give you a totally unbiased opinion. This is particularly useful if you’re not part of a writing community and the only person who’s seen the manuscript is yourself. The developmental editor will also have a lot of professional expertise which the beta reader may not have, and your story will benefit from that expertise. Using a developmental editor will ensure that your precious story is ready to go out into the world.

Have you ever used a developmental editing or critiquing service? How useful did you find it? Do you offer these services yourself? If so, how do you approach it?

How to Make Your Creative Writing Workshops More Interactive

Dave Lordan is a man on a mission. He is determined to professionalise the practice of teaching creative writing in Ireland, as it is in the UK, America and various other countries around the world. He’ll be delivering a six-week course at the Irish Writers’ Centre to help creative writing tutors improve their ability to deliver creative writing classes in school and community settings.

I attended Lordan’s one-day “crash course” on the subject back in March and it’s inspired me to change my approach, particularly when it comes to doing creative writing workshops with children. Lordan’s watchword is “interactive.” His workshops are high energy and aim to bring out the storyteller in everyone, even if they are not natural writers.

Talk out the story first

Writing is daunting for many children – and adults. Engage people’s interest and warm up their brains by talking through the story first. For example, you might want to create a lead character who’s a wizard. Ask people to give the wizard a name. Have a brainstorm about superpowers that they think are really cool and assign one to the wizard. Write down people’s ideas on a flip chart or an interactive whiteboard, and they’ll start to see the stories emerge. This approach will get people into a storytelling frame of mind, and they’ll see that they’re free to be as wacky as they want.

Interactive writing lets your imagination go wild.
Interactive writing lets your imagination go wild.

Tell stories in other ways

Not everyone is a natural writer, but everyone is a natural storyteller, so help people find other ways to tell their stories. Doing this is particularly useful for people with low levels of literacy, mixed-ability groups of children and people who are doing a creative writing workshop out of obligation rather than because they want to. Encourage people to tell stories using drawings, songs, oral storytelling and more modern mediums like blogging and video. This will tap into their own natural abilities.

Respond to your participants

Tailor your approach to the needs and interests of the group you’re teaching. If you have a group of sports mad boys, have them tell stories about soccer matches or meeting their favourite rugby player. If you have a group of older people, they may enjoy sharing memories of their local area. The group’s interests will become clear during the warm up when you’re getting to know them. Don’t be afraid to ditch your careful plans and shape your workshop according to what they tell you.

I’ve always felt my own approach to teaching creative writing has been a little on the academic side, which is fine for people with a high level of education or who are already comfortable with writing, but may be a struggle for people who aren’t naturally academic. I’m hoping that incorporating these techniques will make my workshops more fun – for me and the children.

If you’re a creative writing tutor, how do you incorporate interaction into your creative writing exercises? And if you’ve taken creative writing classes, have you ever had a tutor who took an interactive approach and how did you find it?

In Praise of Omniscient Narration

Once upon a time, a Narrator, either named or unnamed, told stories from on high. This narrator, like a deity, could see all, and was therefore in a position to tell all. At some point, literary boffins decided to call this style of storytelling omniscient narration, and it began to fall out of favour.

Nowadays, authors of literary fiction, women’s commercial fiction and thrillers in particular favour a more intimate style of narration. They tell stories in the first person, or from the viewpoint of two or three characters, (which literary boffins call third-person limited) to help readers feel they’re right inside the minds of these characters.

I think it’s a pity that omniscient narration is somehow seen as inferior. Yes, it can be more impersonal, but when it’s done right, it leads to big, sumptuous stories that can dazzle you with their scope. Capital by John Lanchester is a fine example of omniscient narration. It’s a multi-layered narrative that tells the story of modern London through the eyes of the inhabitants of a single street.

Capital John Lanchester

Here are three reasons why omniscient narration works so well.

God-like Status

As I said earlier, omniscient narrators are like gods. This means that they can see around corners. When you write in a more intimate style, you’re limited as to what you can reveal about your characters, because your narrator mightn’t be familiar with important details about the other characters’ lives. But with omniscient narration, you have the flexibility to reveal whatever they need to reveal about their characters to make the story flow.

Create a World

When you choose omniscient narration, you can create a panoramic view of an entire world. You’ve got a wide canvas to work with, and you can fill it with rich background detail about the world the character lives in. This kind of storytelling allows readers to completely immerse themselves in a new world, and it’s still possible to create intimacy by giving character portraits of the people who live in that world, as John Lanchester does in Capital.

Concentrate on Story

If you’re naturally a more plot-driven writer than a character driven one, omniscient narration gives you the chance to put your story centre stage. The story becomes th cornerstone of the book and you can use your large cast of characters to help you carry that story forward.

Do you favour omniscient narration, as a reader or a writer? Or do you prefer more intimate forms of narration?

Creative Writing in the Library

Libraries are marvellous places. It’s a cliché to say it, but clichés happen to be true. With little funding at their disposal, they have evolved to become vibrant reading emporiums, where people can access not just dusty books but a whole range of facilities, including creative writing workshops.

I’ve just begun a series of three workshops in libraries in Waterford in South East Ireland. They’re for National Literacy Week and Positive Ageing Week. I delivered my first one last Thursday. It lasted three hours and aimed to give a gentle introduction to the world of creative writing.

Icebreaking Exercises

Four brave souls turned up, and I eased them into the session with a few icebreaking exercises. I showed them my highly fashionable Bavarian hat, now a feature of my creative writing workshops, and asked them to write a sentence describing it. They introduce themselves by pairing their names with the name of an animal, which shared the first letter of their name e.g. Derbhile the Dolphin. Finally, I fried their heads a little by asking them to come up with 26 words to match the 26 letters of the alphabet and writing a little story featuring their three favourite words from the list.

My magical storytelling hat, picture taken by moi.
My magical storytelling hat, picture taken by moi.

Stimulating the Senses

Now the participants were starting to loosen up, it was time for them to tap into their senses. Stimulating the senses evokes strong emotions and memories, and encourages you to come up with more vivid descriptions. The participants told the life stories of curious objects, using the look and texture of the objects to give them ideas.

Then they ate oranges, not out of any great desire to be nutritious, but because oranges work all five of your sentences. They described the experience of eating the orange, through its look, feel, sound, taste and smell. The word squishy features heavily. I then extended the exercise and had them write a powerful food memory, of oranges or any other food that came to mind.


Next came arguably the most important part of the workshop – the break. I’m not being facetious. The break gives participants a chance to relax and get to know each other, and when they feel comfortable with each other, they’ll take more risks with their writing. The library once more proved its excellence when its staff provided tea and biscuits, even though they were under no obligation to do so.

Storytelling Techniques

Now the participants were fortified, it was time to get down to the serious business with storytelling. We started with characters. I talked about how characters are created and the participants created their own characters, based on a picture of a rather hideous looking old man. They then needed to create a world for that character to live in, so they wrote a travel-brochure style piece, selling an imaginary country.

No story is complete without an event, so I talked about the different kinds of plots that writers use. I then gave participants pictures from a calendar I got with a newspaper three years ago, which told the story of significant news events in pictures. I’d removed all evidence of what the events were, and asked the participants to come up with a caption for the picture. I rounded off the workshop by asking them to write about a significant news event that they remembered from their youth.

I have no idea what ultimate outcome this workshop will have. I hope it will plant the seeds of stories in the participants, and they will work on them in their own time. Certainly, it was gratifying to feel the levels of confidence and enthusiasm rising as the morning went on.

If you’re in the Waterford area, and what you’ve read has whetted your appetite, I have two workshops left in the series. Click here to find out more.

Waterford Young Arts Critics Workshops

March has been a month of eye opening workshops. Following the success of my intellectual disabilities workshop, I was given another usual request: to teach critiquing skills to young people taking part in the Waterford Young Arts Critics Scheme.

In this scheme, 15-18 year olds are given the opportunity to critique various pieces of art. They’ve attended performances and written about them on their blog. They’ve also been given an insight into a different artistic discipline every month, in the run up to a talk given by art critic Gemma Tipton during the Waterford Writers’ Weekend about why the role of a critic matters.

March was the month for creative writing and I was chosen to deliver two workshops, lasting two hours each. I could take any approach I wanted, as long as it tied into the theme of the talk. I decided to give the young people an introduction to creative writing techniques and to explore the importance of a critic to both writers and readers.

The Craft of Writing

Five young people turned up at Waterford’s Central Library for the workshops. For my first workshop, I concentrated on creative writing techniques.

I outlined the main ingredients of storytelling: plot, character, setting and the use of the senses. I gave them handouts covering the main points. Then they did writing activities so they could try out the techniques for themselves. This would give them an idea of what to look out for when they’re  reviewing a piece of writing.

Critiquing for Readers and Writers

For the second workshop, the young people put their knowledge of these techniques to the test by writing book reviews of their own. In acknowledgement of the fact that not all of them are readers, I widened the scope so they could write about films or TV series, as long as they concentrated on the storytelling aspects of the medium.

After they read their reviews, we discussed the role that reviews play in helping readers choose books. It turned out that the young people often used reviews to help them decide what books to read. I then outlined a critiquing system called the Liz Lerman method, used by arts practitioners to give each other constructive feedback in workshop situations and we discussed the value of this critiquing method for writers.

 Displaying Critiquing Skills

After that, it was time for the young people to put their critiquing skills to the test. I had brought in a piece of my own work and stressed that because I had written it quite a whole ago, they could feel free to say anything they wished. They also had the opportunity to review their own reviews and give each other feedback. We finished the session with another creative writing activity, which gave them the opportunity to let off steam after all that heavy analysis.

The young people demonstrated professionalism, thoroughness and flair in their reviews. I felt that their efforts deserved to be acknowledged, so I gave out what I called a Critic’s Pen Award for the best review. I gave it to a reviewer who exacted exquisite revenge on her teachers for forcing her to read The Princess Bride by William Golding.

What about you? Do you think critics are watchdogs for standards in the arts? Or are they simply being paid to grumble?

Creative Writing Workshop for People with Intellectual Disabilities

How do you do a writing workshop with people who find writing difficult? That was the dilemma I was faced with when I received an offer to do a writing workshop for people with intellectual disabilities in early January. I was delighted to receive the offer, but apprehensive too. What if I talked down to them? Or my words flew above their heads?

The workshop was to be at the School of Nursing in Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland, which offers people with intellectual disabilities the chance to receive a recognised qualification, a FETAC Level Three Certificate in Independent Living. I had given a storytelling workshop during an adult learning festival the previous year and the programme manager wanted me to deliver something similar to her students.

I had done some volunteer work with people with intellectual disabilities as a member of Toastmasters, a public speaking association, and I remembered their enthusiasm and willingness to talk. And I realised that the students didn’t need to be able to write to tell their stories. They could use their voices.

Preparing the Workshop

I decided to use the same exercises for this workshop as for all my other workshops, but instead of writing pieces, we would talk through the exercises. For one-off workshops, I do a story template based on a quest (hero goes to strange land and battles a monster to get treasure).

As the students did have some literacy skills, I created a story spine, where the structure is in place and the students add the flesh. I drew up a worksheet with a series of sentences such as:

Once there was a ___. He travelled to _____

The students did have some literacy skills, so I felt this format would give them a chance to display those skills without overwhelming them.

Delivering the Workshop

On the day of the workshop, I sat with the programme manager in the light-filled atrium of the nursing building and ran over my plans to make sure they’d sit well with the students. Then it was into the breach, dear friends, as we made our way to the room where the students waited for us.

I had brought my magic storytelling hat and it worked its usual wonders as the students tried it on and told me their names. For the next hour, we discovered the stories within the picture, sampled the delights of oranges and went on a round the world tour of holiday destinations. The idea was to stimulate the senses and trigger memories, though I was careful not to stray too much into deeper emotional territory.

In the second hour, we discussed the components of the story they were to write, the character, the place and the treasure. Then they wrote the story and a few of the students shared their efforts with the class.

After the Workshop

Sometimes when you’re giving a workshop, it can feel as if your words disappear into a black hole. You cannot really gauge what impact they’re having on the students – you just have to trust that you’re getting through. With this group, that didn’t happen. The students were generous with their experiences and their opinion. Even the most non-verbal were not afraid to let me know exactly what they thought.

I floated out of the building, high on ideas, on words, and on the enthusiasm, humour and responsiveness of the students. Thanks to them, this was one of the best workshop experiences I have ever had.