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A bottle of after-shave, a misplaced key, a life lost — why detail matters in storytelling 19 April 2019

Here’s a really boring statement (but please don’t stop reading yet: it’s boring for a reason.)  “A healthcare trust in East Sussex has been fined for failing to discharge its duty to ensure people were not exposed to health and safety risks.”

It’s a boring statement because words like ‘healthcare trust’, ‘discharge’ and ‘health and safety’ are dull.  

But when I point out that the statement is about a 14 year old girl called Amy who died because a nurse didn’t have the right key to her room where she hanged herself with a scarf — that Amy was so mentally fragile that she would drink men’s aftershave — that the hospital was described by her mother as Victorian, with no pictures on the walls — suddenly this sad case becomes more compelling, doesn’t it?  We can smell the Lynx bottle.  We can see the glint of the key, and feel the texture of that scarf.  The gloomy corridors chill us.  We sit up, perhaps, and take note. 

These details emerged during an interview with Amy’s mother on BBC Radio 4’s Today this morning.  (You can listen to it here: seven compelling minutes.) 

It struck me as I listened that this interview was a case-study in the power of detail within story-telling.  ‘Story-telling’ can be a vague phrase, bandied around as something that will help businesses with their internal and external communications.  But for those stories to have impact, you need to highlight, not dismiss, those tiny details — the nouns and adjectives that people can see, touch and smell.  That door key, that silk scarf, that bottle of a young man’s aftershave. 

So if your challenge is to take the Chief Executive’s annual report and turn it into something staff will actually notice, maybe you could ask the Chief Executive to open it with a brief story about a member of staff, in a particular department, who did a specific thing, on a particular wet November afternoon … which led to that 20% increase in profits.  Or if you’re promoting a new product that’s rather tedious, tell its users about a customer with a name, from a certain town, who used it to meet a particular need — with a heartwarming result.  

Next time you’re trying to get a message across, ask yourself — which are the boring words, and which are the words that will make my audience feel, smell, taste — and take note? 

If you’d like help spotting stories in your business, and working out how to tell them as nimbly as a journalist, give me a call.


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