Spider webSo, you need to write about something important. The problem is, it’s boring or routine.

You know the topics. They’re necessary, but they aren’t the sexiest. Safety reminders, maybe, or a potentially dry explanation of a (zzzz….) process improvement. You have to capture interest and attention or the reader won’t make it past the first sentence. But how?

Chances are, there’s a fascinating story behind the topics that at first glance seem a little dull.. Here are three tips for finding the story and spinning the “straw” of boring information about dry topics into gold:

1.  Look for people and look for their stories.

A lightbulb went off over someone’s head when trying to solve a problem or come up with an innovation. Who was it and what happened? Lead with the person. You may uncover an inventor who tried something unusual, a clever engineer who solved a puzzle, or a team of people trying to find one thing and coming up with something completely different.

Examples:

  • “As Mine Geologist, Jesse Spacek leads a project aimed at improving safety. A fall on the muckpile that ended with four stitiches to his wrist made it personal.”
  • “About five years ago, aiming to improve his own lawn, he tested a spray oil he had developed to control insects in agricultural applications. His wife, Tania, was becoming irritated with his tests, so he turned to the professionals at the University of Florida.”

2.  Look for answers to the questions that satisfy your own curiosity.

Now that you’ve found the human behind the project, ask questions, and lots of them – who, what, when, where, why and how. Who else was involved? Why is the topic important? What does it mean? How much, how big, how many? What’s unusual or different? When did people start working on the project? Why should readers care? How would your expert explain the issue to a teenager or a parent? And the questions I usually end with, “Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about this?” and “What’s the most important thing you want people to remember after reading the article?” Help readers understand the answers with metaphors and similes.

Examples:

  • Just as dentists use X-rays to see beneath the surface without pulling a tooth, scientists will soon be able to see what’s happening at the atomic level within a material without destroying its surface.”
  • “Coming up with the next big thing relies on pulling information from a variety of sources, much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.”

3.  Look for meaning behind the numbers.

Your questions will likely uncover details that involve numbers. Help readers grasp the importance of numbers by relating them to something familiar. How big is a piece of equipment compared to an elephant or a bus or a pizza? Is something the size of your fingertip, as wide as a cellphone or the weight of a ballpoint pen? How far would something stretch across a room, a city or around the world? And how far is two metres (six feet) anyway?

Examples:

  • In less than four minutes, our operations use the amount of diesel it would take you to drive from Halifax to Vancouver in a diesel pickup truck.”
  • “What’s remarkable about the ultrathin flash memory device Dr. Giovanni Fanchini holds in his hand isn’t its size but its composition. At 10 nanometers (nm), the sleek new polymer material that makes up the device is 10,000 times thinner than a single human hair.”

Once you’ve collected the details, figure out the most interesting, surprising or critical information. Use that as your opening.

Do you have other ways of bringing potentially boring topics alive? Let me know in the comments.

Image by SweetCrisis and FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Related reading:
Finding the human side of academic research 
Where’s Waldo? Find the human in your stories
Road ecology steps in when animal instincts and urban sprawl collide
Timeless writing advice from Don Ranly