Guest post: Stories aren’t circular

… by Tom Albrighton

In Flann O’Brien’s brilliant comic novel The Third Policeman, the unnamed narrator negotiates a series of surreally disturbing encounters before realising he is in fact (spoiler alert) already dead, and starting the whole posthumous misadventure over again. The book’s original title was Hell Goes Round And Round, which O’Brien presumably discarded because it kinda spoilt the surprise.

I always recall that title when contemplating a circular process diagram like the one shown below. (They’re a piece of cake to create in Word.) Rather than something ludicrously spoddy like ‘design–implement–analyse–refine’, I’ve opted for a dry and I think rather witty summary of a day (any day) in my own life.

For their creators, figures like this have the virtue of neatness, harmony and self-congratulation. I say self-congratulation because they often express a firm’s supposed commitment to continuous improvement – the willingness to repeat the cycle of development once lessons have been learned by reworking and refining a product, service or process.

But do clients see them that way? I don’t think so. If someone pitched me with a diagram like this, I would feel profoundly dispirited. I don’t really want to climb into some Sisyphean feedback loop, no matter how hard the supplier rocks. I don’t like to think that our shared effort, however productive, will go on and on with no end in sight. And I’m not crazy about striking an open-ended infinideal where timescales and costs can increase for ever and ever, world without end.

I don’t think upselling is consciously in the mind of people who create these diagrams. And the prospect’s inference of lock-in may also be unconscious. But I’m still sure they do more harm than good.

In my opinion, the reason they’re so discomfiting is that they aren’t like stories. Just as The Third Policeman futzed with readers’ heads by turning plot into a loop, so the circular diagram frustrates the audience’s deep-seated longing for narrative development and closure. Where does it start? And where does it end? Help!

Far better, in my view, to present your process as a simple sequence of steps or events:

It’s childishly simple, which is why it strikes a chord. You can see the beginning, the middle and the end.

And isn’t it so much nicer now my story ends with the diurnal full stop of sleep? Of course, I’ll still be up again and writing in nine short hours. But this isn’t a documentary.

Unconsciously, people seeing this sort of diagram in a pitch feel reassured that they’re buying into a clearly defined sequence of events with a specific outcome and predictable results. They’ll infer that time and costs will be known and bounded, rather than indefinite and incremental. And they won’t feel they’re beginning a never-ending story where there’s always something else over the page.

If you really want to run that old continuous-improvement jive, you can always add an arrow from the end back to the start. But why not wait until you’ve gained the client (or convinced the audience) before you put them in a reiteration situation?

Of course, narrative closure is an illusion. But closing a deal isn’t. And if you want more of the latter, I’d suggest sticking with the former.

Tom Albrighton is a copywriter and founder of ABC Copywriting. He writes regularly on copywriting issues for the ABC Copywriting blog.

2 thoughts on “Guest post: Stories aren’t circular”

  1. Agreed. Isn’t the adage something like, “90% of the message is in how you say it”?

    You’re saying the same thing in both these diagrams. You are describing the same facts. But the second diagram is so much easier to understand and provides a sense of clarity to the viewer.

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