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Context: It Means Everything for a Good Story.

Guilty pleasures: we all have them. One of my biggest is the opportunity to binge watch crime dramas – especially on cold, rainy weekends. Nothing gets me more excited about a weekend in, than the idea of a good mystery series directed by someone who knows how to deliver edge-of-your-seat excitement mixed with twist and turns that lead to jaw-dropping conclusions. Right now, it’s the Broadchurch series that has me wishing for rain in Austin this weekend.

My love of good mysteries most likely started with my affection for connect the dot puzzle books as a kid. You never really knew what you were getting into until you began filling in the gaps between the numbers – it was a mystery. Tracing my way around the page created an excitement for what would eventually be revealed. And then the artist in me would color in the open space in order to create a masterpiece fit for the refrigerator’s place of honor.

Ironically, sharing a dot-based visual cue is my staple for helping audience’s understand how context works in storytelling. So with the help of a simple image, I’m going to share three truths about context and why it’s important to any story.

Truth #1: Without context, your audience may struggle to see your vision. Like the image below. The artist has offered something that looks like fins and a tail, but what about the rest of the image? Is it a fish? If yes, what kind? What color? And what is on the left side? Truth is, it’s hard to know what they designed without first connecting those dots. In much the same way, without context, it can be quite difficult for people to see what you’ve envisioned. Your dots get an audience curious, now you need to add a little context to help them begin to connect them.

 

Truth #2: Without a framework, your audience may draw their own conclusions. Context helps you frame the conversation. Good storytelling begins with opening gaps in people’s thinking. Getting them curious about what’s going to happen next. From there, a story begins to fill in those gaps as you add context. Think of it like a frame. You begin to drawn the lines between those dots in order to frame the picture. There are still questions ahead, but the audience is beginning to see where you’re headed. Every dot you help them connect [mentally], is one dot closer to the big reveal. 

Truth #3: Without the complete picture, your audience may not truly understand the need, pain or problem. Storytelling in business has a four step process; opening gaps → closing gaps → offering options → call to action. Context in the storytelling process is the point at which you share a picture of the current realities – it’s about closing gaps in understanding. While the dots opened gaps in order to get us curious, the context comes as you paint a picture through your words, through images or through data visualizations. Now seeing the full-color image of the original dotted mystery, there is no mistaking the artist’s intent was for us to see blueish-green sharks. In order to help people comprehend the need, pain or problem, you have to fill in the details. 

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