Can you remember this movie when I describe the scene?
A family is watching a talent show at a resort on the last night of vacation. A former staffer at the resort stops by their table and asks the daughter to dance.
That description may not ring any bells until I add the dialog from the scene.
“Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”
I was a teen when “Dirty Dancing” hit theatres, and it has been my favorite movie ever since. Who doesn’t get chills when Johnny Castle swings in and escorts Baby on stage at Kellerman’s Resort?
Growing up in New York, I was familiar with those family resorts in the Catskills. Just repeating that iconic line brings back the summer heat, the lake lift, the passion. And my mind leaps to the scene where Johnny grabs the microphone from Max Kellerman and tells anyone listening what Baby means to him.
Cue music: “Now, I’ve had the time of my life, and I owe it all to you…”
That classic line of dialog, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” changed everything. Still, 35 years later, when you say it in a group of people, they know what you’re talking about, and they probably start dancing!
Do you want to create three-dimensional stories? Using dialog can be your secret weapon. It changes your stories from engaging to riveting.
Most communicators, especially business writers, don’t use this strategy. But think about it. Novelists use dialog to draw us into their books, and it works well in business communications too.
When you use dialog, people feel like they are a part of the message. They are a fly on the wall getting to know the characters.
Here’s an example of basic narration:
When you ask Desta, a middle-aged businessperson, what she would tell her younger self, she says she would save more money. Back then she would rather go shopping than save the money to pay her car insurance bill.
Now, read it with dialog:
When you ask Desta, a middle-aged businessperson, what she would tell her younger self, she doesn’t hesitate. “I would tell her to ask the payroll department to split her paycheck into two accounts, one for bills and one for savings. Quite often my eyes are bigger than my pocketbook, so I’m stuck when my car insurance bill arrives.”
If you’re like most audiences or clients I have given this exercise to, you’ll say that the dialog helps you get to know the character. With narration, you might be interested, but it’s not nearly as powerful.
4 Tips for Adding Dialog
Adding dialog is a lot like riding a bike. You might struggle at first when switching from writing with narration to writing with dialog. In the beginning you have to really focus, but then it becomes part of your muscle memory.
Here are four tips for adding dialog to your storytelling.
- Look for the feelings. Anywhere that you are narrating feelings and emotions is a great place for dialog. Mom said, “I feel sad” or “I feel angry.” Give a voice to those feelings people can relate to.
- Keep your dialog interesting. It’s more compelling to hear what Desta says to herself about shopping than if you quoted what she asked the payroll department, for example.
- When you identify a place for dialog, make sure you put it in the present tense. Don’t write in the past tense. Even if you are talking about something that happened five years ago, the character is saying how they feel in the present moment.
- Write in the first person. In narration it would be, my mom told me to go to the store and pick up a pack of cigarettes. In dialog, you would say, “My mom said, ‘Go to the store for me and pick up a pack of cigarettes.’”
Like riding a bike, once you have figured out how to infuse your stories with dialog, it will be something you think about less and less but can do more and more.
In business storytelling, the more people can relate to your characters, the more they are going to connect with you, the storyteller. And the whole point of business storytelling is to develop that trust, that connection, that credibility, that desire for your services. Using dialog is a way to massively accelerate that happening.