#20 How Do You Bring a Story to Life With Impact?

It’s simple (but takes practice): Specific, animate detail

I was 6 years old the first time I had strep throat. My dad had brought me and my siblings McDonald’s for lunch that day. I had my favourite, a McChicken sandwich. During our lunch hour African studies lesson, my best friend Madonna’s wide brown face smiled up at me as her head lay in my lap and she whispered over the lecture of our teacher. I remember her wide brown eyes and the sprinkling of chocolate brown freckles over her smiling cheekbones. I swayed a little as I felt the heat of something foreign at the back of my throat and a wave of floating nausea take over in my head. I looked down at Madonna as my eyes watered, unsure what was happening or what to say or do. I heaved once, twice, and then by some instinct put my hand over my mouth. But that small barrier couldn’t stop the wave of undigested fast-food fries and chicken that spewed out of my mouth and right into Madonna’s face. She burst into tears, screaming. So did I.

It was awful and a moment I’ll never forget. My exact position, the lighting in the room, the crowd of others around us and Ms. Andersson’s (my older sister’s teacher) quick, comforting response as two of her students reacted with howls of unhappiness to the clear and violent illness of one. Somehow Madonna forgave me and remained my best friend.

I tell you that somewhat stomach-turning story to make a point and share a lesson I learned in journalism school and which was reinforced in a writing course a few years ago. I apply it to all my storytelling. Specific, animate detail is how you bring your story to life.

In journalism school the example they used was if you’re covering a fire and find out that the family dog alerted everyone which allowed them to get out safely, the story you tell includes how Chuck, the family’s 18-year-old and graying chocolate lab woke the Andersons and their two daughters with his barks; NOT the family dog alerted the Andersons to the fire. (Key lesson from journalism school: always get the dogs name).

The details are what help bring the story to life, paints a picture in the eyes of the reader, and engages them in the story. It’s the close up on the turning handle to the kitchen when the raptors in Jurassic Park show they’ve learned how to open doors. It puts your audience in the room with the action. It’s why when we write cover letters, we tell the company why we think they’re great and the right fit for us and our experience (at least if you’re doing it right and you get exact).

Specific. Animate. Detail. Don’t gloss over the facts. When I do a research project for clients to help them better understand their customers, I want them to leave with a sense of a living breathing person for whom they’re building new products and services. To share what’s in their hearts and their minds and what they value most in their world. I do so by asking questions that uncover the details of who a person is and then telling that story to the client. The goal from there is to help them understand and create value through the right product and brand marketing based on the story we’ve uncovered.

You can do it when bringing your stories to life by reviewing anything you’ve created through the lens of finding opportunities to infuse more details. Not every detail, mind you. There’s a fine line between painting a picture and overloading your audience with minutia. An easy way to start is to choose three product features that matter most for your business or three learnings in a presentation deck and make sure you get specific in your descriptions of those things. Consider how a character comes to life if you describe her as spending a week in a hotel vs a week in the Four Seasons penthouse suite OR a week in the cheapest room at the motel six on the side of the highway. You see?

This approach requires review and editing, something I’m going to dive into next week, but in the meantime just always ask yourself how you may be able to get more specific. Soon it’ll become second nature and your storytelling will benefit exponentially.

As a writer I like to follow the latest in word news (an actual thing) and wanted to share Oxford Dictionary’s unique approach to their annual Word of the Year for 2020. Usually it tells the story of a year in a single word. Because 2020 has been such a…cluster…challenge…mess of a year they didn’t choose a single word. Instead, they went with a high-level theme and acknowledged the swift and giant impact the pandemic has had on language. In their words, “The English language, like all of us, has had to adapt rapidly and repeatedly this year.” 

This New York Times article gives a nice overview of the approach for 2020 and how it’s changed over the years. Is there a word that summarizes 2020 for you? Share in the comments below.


If you know someone who has a story to tell and may need some help, please share this newsletter with them and encourage them to subscribe.

Also, if you’re enjoying this or if there’s something you’d like me to cover in a future letter—an element of your storytelling you may be struggling with, please let me know by leaving a comment below. I’m here to help.

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Thanks for reading and I’ll “see” you next week. Whatever the world may bring, there will always be important stories that need you to tell them. I’ll be here to help.

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