The CIA Technique for Good Storytelling


Before You Start Writing or Talking, Gather Some Intelligence for Your Story

R.C. DirkesBy R.C. Dirkes

Utter the acronym CIA; get a reaction.

I admit to using the controversial brand of our nation’s Central Intelligence Agency to grab readers’ attention. But I don’t apologize for the tactic.

Because my assignment with this column is no small challenge: In a split second amid a torrent of content gushing across your screen (probably a small screen, too, held in the palm of your hand) my piece must rise to the surface to be noticed. No small feat considering with today’s digitalized lifestyle people typically lose concentration after eight seconds as they check hundreds of messages on their billions of smartphones more than 15 times each day.

So, no act of contrition here. Just a means to an end.

You see, lobbing the three letters that stir the most intrigue – if not ire… or even fear – in the minds of most Americans demonstrates a point about effective storytelling: The best, most memorable stories are based on those your audience already knows – and feels.

As a writer, a storyteller in text, I could count on the term CIA stirring a mix of ideas and images in the minds of readers or listeners. Some of mystery and adventure. Some of manipulation and arrogance. And some of malevolence and amorality. Which set of feelings and opinions is ignited doesn’t matter, because there is no plan on my part to condemn or defend any aspect of the agency’s reputation or sector of its activities. Invoking the group’s initials is purely technique.

Now, not only is the collective mind of the audience engaged, so is its heart.

So, what comes next had better be good. The story had better stick. By engaging with the CIA technique, I, the storyteller, have accepted not only the responsibility to elaborate my knowledge, but the obligation to educate my audience.

And to deliver on that promise, I’ll use the very acronym in question to break down this method into three simple storytelling steps:

  1. Create Dissonance
    When new information clashes with something you believe you know, the result is dissonance. Dissonance is a challenge to thinking that our minds have embraced – an unanticipated revision to a familiar story. Psychologists say that cognitive dissonance – i.e., discord between ideas in the mind – is the catalyst that changes attitudes. But dissonance is no guarantee the change in thinking will go one direction or another. Dissonance is just an opening. Dissonance makes an audience pay attention.
  2. Impress with Numbers
    As dissonance in the minds of readers and listeners creates opportunities to elaborate, what the storytelling says next must be credible. Credibility is the greatest power any storyteller can wield. A speaker or writer is credible because an audience believes that person knows not only the plot of the story, but the backstory, too. And perhaps there is no more effective device for demonstrating credibility than numbers. Using statistics shows an audience the writer has done some homework, has invested time in research. Numbers, like acronyms pop off a page, leap out of a statement. (Psychologists theorize that dissonance is the engine here, too; numbers, being different shapes than letters, disrupt the flow of words.)
  3. Analyze the Numbers
    Laying down some stats never is enough to advance a story. Dissonance engages attention, numbers elaborate a point, but analysis educates. Like the monogram CIA, steps one and two pique an audience, while step three works to justify the maneuver. If you are reading this sentence, the gambit of my headline and first few lines pulled you through to the staggering numbers about the fragility of attention spans in this digital age. But it was this last section, this 3-step analysis of the CIA system that brought you to this point, no?

Every person, every business, has good stories to tell about their personal and professional brands. And just as it is with the CIA, not everyone who hears those stories will like them, agree with them or want to hear more of them. But if you follow the technique laid out in this column, odds are high your audience not only will notice those stories, they will remember and recognize who told them.

About the Author: Communications strategist R.C. Dirkes, founder of consulting firm R.Clement.Creative, has coached dozens of technology and small business executives on dealing with media in the digital age.







  1. Rudy Germany on at 7:45 PM

    Thank you, Bob!
    This was very insightful.

  2. David Piluski on at 9:46 AM

    Great advice, Bob. Something I can definitely use.

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