Put me in the scene…and I’m yours

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When you write: “snarling and baring its fangs, the dog lunged at her neck,” your readers mentally put a hand to their throats.

If you’ve built the scene very well, maybe readers physically cover their throats.

When writing evokes our senses we feel like we are there, experiencing it. To get that kind of reaction, your writing must be full of description, of details and places that make us see the story as it unfolds.

A news piece on CNN.com by Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent, did exactly that.

The story included a picture of a young woman holding a happy baby. The headline read: Surrogate offered $10,000 to abort baby. And a deck added: “Surrogacy ends with legal actions, secretive flight to another state.”

That was enough to make me curious, but the real-time, story-in-action approach got me to read the entire piece.

(CNN) — Crystal Kelley ran through the calendar once again in her head.

It was August, and if she got pregnant soon, she could avoid carrying during the hot summer months — she’d done that before and didn’t want to do it again. There was no time to lose.

But there was one problem: She had no one to get her pregnant.

Kelley picked up the phone and called a familiar number. What about the nice single man who’d inquired before — would he be interested? No, the woman told her. She hadn’t heard from him in weeks.

Disappointed, Kelley asked if there was anyone else who would hire her. She’d had two miscarriages herself and wanted to help someone else with fertility problems. In return, she’d get a $22,000 fee.

Hold on, the woman said, let me see.

Yes, she said, there was a couple who wanted to meet her. Was she ready to take down their e-mail address?

Absolutely, Kelley answered.

I’m right on that phone with Kelley, sweltering in the August heat. What will happen next? You can’t help but wonder.

And that’s exactly what you want your readers to do.

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The truth about true stories

People are too complex to have just one truth. Everyone’s truth is malleable depending on who’s telling it and why.

What does this mean for your integrity as a writer?

I believe a skilled writer, much like a skilled counselor, can work with sources to share their story in a way that is true to them and about them while at the same time nailing the particular communication purpose at hand.

This juggling act is an important skill for those of us on the softer news, public relations side of the communications business. There is power in what we say and how we say it, that should never be underestimated. And it should always be a part of strategy conversations.

If you aren’t sure you can believe that, you should watch this short video. “The Power of Words” is an amazing piece created to promote Andrea Gardner’s book Change your Words, Change your World. It illustrates the importance of framing someone’s truth to match the communication objective.

It’s worth the two minutes it will take you to see it.

I write a number of feature stories about successful people. When I do so, I have communication goals, but it is also imperative that the stories I write are truthful.

Typically, I offer the people I write about the opportunity to review the article before it gets published.

If that shocks anyone’s journalistic sensibilities, let me remind you that I’m not a reporter for the Washington Post or The Detroit Free Press or even a weekly tabloid. I write for Michigan State University. So my sources for success stories are our faculty, alumni, donors and friends, which means I am free, if not compelled, to involve them.

Does that mean my stories are any less true than those written by news reporters?

As a third grade child, I had to learn the difference between an autobiography and a biography. My third grade self was sure that the truest story would be an autobiography. How could someone else know a person better than they know themselves I innocently reasoned?

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In my idealistic youth years, I sided with the biographers and thought any autobiography was self-indulgent at best, probably a bore and certainly not the whole truth.

Turns out the truth—especially when set down in writing—is a bit trickier.

When I was fresh from J-school, the thought of allowing a source to review your story was something I thought of as a harsh reality in public relations. Though, I probably kept quiet most of the time and hoped my sources wouldn’t insist. Then, felt violated if they did but, shamefully, relieved if they spotted an inaccuracy.

Not surprisingly, most people want things that are written about them to mirror the story that they would tell about themselves. I can’t always do that depending on my objectives, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who wanted me to lie.

In fact, I could never really reflect anyone’s internal self even if I wanted to. No matter how much time I spend with someone, I can’t live in his or her head.

All this is less about preserving some idea about journalistic integrity and more about portraying someone authentically while at the same time crafting a message that helps your organization. That takes time, trust and finesse.

Telling my sources upfront that they can see what I write before it goes out into the world instills trust. It’s concrete evidence that they are not being used, that I actually care about them. It helps them talk more freely and makes them more willing to let down any walls. Which in turn, can open the door for telling a fuller version of their truth that is consistent with what and how I need to communicate with our audience.

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A couple of years ago, I interviewed a Hollywood producer. When I asked him if he wanted to see what I wrote before publication, he said: “No, whatever you write is what you saw in me, and I wouldn’t want to change that.”

Maybe that was merely a function of his busy life. Or, maybe I’d really won his trust. I’m pretty confident it was neither of those. I think he just understood that his story could be different for different people and he was okay with that.

Career advice blogger Penelope Trunk writes,

“every summary of any part of your life could be a totally different summary as well. And be equally true.”

She knows out that her resume could tell the story of her as a writer. But if she needed to get a job in operations, she could rewrite it to indicate that operations had been her focus for the last fifteen years…without lying. She’d just frame her truth from a different angle.

The man in “The Power of Words” had a message that was true enough but it didn’t work for what he needed. The writer reframed his message for him in way that had impact which is exactly my point.

It’s okay to share the truth that works best for the situation you find yourself in.

Storytelling Redux

Last week I blogged on the importance of taking the time to gather the details to tell good stories, but not a lot on how to pull it together. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to circle back.

Andy Goodman says before you launch into a story, you first should ask yourself: Who’s the protagonist?

If you think that sounds like a middle school English literature lesson, you are not too far off base.

Not unlike good literature, your audience needs a protagonist—a person to relate to—in order to enter the world of your story. Besides you need a real person to drive the action. By the way, your story needs to have some action too; but more on that later.

Audiences bore easily so mostly you need to stir up emotions. You can have great statistics, facts and figures, but people have to feel something before they will take a serious look at those numbers. As Goodman points out “nobody ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart.”

In his book, Storytelling as Best Practice, Goodman claims the average nonprofit would retell the story of “The Wizard of Oz” something like this:

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Youth learns importance of community

  • An at-risk youth from a blended family in the farm belt is rendered unconscious during an extreme weather event. When she awakens, she undertakes a long, hazardous journey in which she is aided by several emotionally-challenged individuals, while also being pursued by a vindictive woman. Upon reaching her destination, she realizes her journey was only a dream yet she gained a newfound appreciation for the positive role of family and community in her life.
  • Kept you on the edge of your seat there, didn’t it?

    If you think for one minute that professional writers wouldn’t be that flat, I invite you to check out Monsters University. Apparently intended to promote the next Monsters, Inc. movie, the site also is an embarrassingly accurate parody of the typical website promoting our nation’s institutions of higher learning.

    You will find pages and pages of mediocre—albeit clever—writing but not a single compelling story. The MU “students” are made to contribute tediously nonspecific things like:

    MU was my dream school. I had many fallback schools, but I secretly hoped I’d get to slither the halls of Monsters U. And now, four years later, I still can’t believe it.

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    Contrast that with these student stories on Spelman College’s “Change. Means. Action.” campaign website. The stories are conveyed in video, but writers will get the idea after listening to Octavia Ferguson (middle student in the banner below). She chronicles her life in the foster care system; from not being allowed to do homework at home—getting in trouble for reading a book instead of taking care of her five younger siblings—to a glorious first day at Spelman.

    There is a clear protagonist with a problem to overcome. Remember when your English teacher said there is no drama without conflict? The tension certainly rises as she quietly admits she was more on a path to prison than a journey to any college campus. Predictable stories are boring. Look for the surprises where the story gets interesting.

    Octavia’s victory is almost palpable in the final scene, which in expert storytelling fashion shows instead of tells, as she grabs her suitcase from the trunk of a car and is swept into a welcome brigade of upperclassmen. Talk about an emotional hook! What’s more, the meaning couldn’t be more obvious.

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    Certainly everything you write cannot be a story but we do need to tell stories somewhere in our publications, websites and social media. I believe you can retrain yourself to be a better storyteller. Your readers will appreciate it, your organization will be strengthened and you might learn something.

    It is worth noting that taking the time to get the story may be only half the battle. Actually publishing it takes bravery: on the part of your subjects, you and your leadership.

    Your subjects have to trust you and be willing to go beyond the canned quotes and corporate boilerplate they are probably all too accustomed to. True stories show people as human, less than perfect.

    You have to be brave enough to pitch it. And sell it.

    And the leadership behind you has to be brave to. They have to be willing to take a few chances. It’s easy to fall back on bland and vague when it means nobody gets in trouble.

    I’m hoping to be a better storyteller. Awareness is key. A desire to be a good storyteller is key. Courage is key.

    The First Wonder of Writing: Storytelling

    I feel I should apologize for the hiatus I’ve taken from this blog. First, I was buried in work and something had to give. Actually a few things had to. But this blog was one of the ones I missed the most.

    The work barrage lifted eventually, but then there was this terrible backlog of things that also needed doing—like laundry, preparing for the holidays, enjoying the half dozen yearend concerts and performances my kids were involved in, and going to the dentist.

    By the time I felt caught up, I had a strong desire to curl up in front of the fire, crochet myself a snuggie and re-watch the first and second seasons of Downton Abbey and/or play mindless word games, for at least a month.

    But now I am refreshed, reenergized and ready to blog like crazy.

    So I decided to kick off with a positive spin. A trade publication I get recently ran a “Seven Deadly Sins of Organizational Writing” series.

    It’s fun to read and helpful but, the negativity got to me. Don’t we business and organization writers ever do anything right? Have we nothing to celebrate?

    And thus came to be this first installment of what I’m calling the Seven Wonders of Writing. To me, there is something pretty inspiring, and yes even wonderful, about the opportunity to tell a story so I’m putting that as he first wonder I’ll write about, because it really is that important.

    Bottom line, you want to be read. You want to write well. And moreover, you’ve got something to communicate. With any luck it is something important and meaningful.

    But it’s a challenge since each and every one of us speaks our own personal language based on our age, stage, wage, gender, race, education, life experiences, id, ego, baggage, filters and favorite breakfast cereal.

    If there’s one thing no one can resist, no matter whether he or she wakes up to fruit loops or oat bran, it is a good story.

    Robert McKee, the award winning Hollywood screenwriter, in Story writes that stories are our most prolific art form. Just consider the daily stream of prose, films, shows, broadcasts, online legends, water cooler anecdotes, office sagas, bedtime children’s tales, barroom bragging, social media gossip, and more that we take in each and every day.

    Why? McKee says we can’t get enough because stories are the most accessible way we have of trying to answer the ever elusive question of how we should lead our lives. In other words, stories give us insight or as McKee writes:

    “(Stories are) but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”

    In another life, I was a student teacher in high school English. Teens aren’t an easy audience. I learned quickly that the surest, fastest and most effective way to get every one of those adolescent eyes on me was to tell a true, personal story.

    So what gets in the way of telling stories when we write?

    Mainly, it takes time. Too much is written from behind a computer screen. To get a great story, you can’t do all the research and interviewing by Internet and phone. You can convey all the essential information very accurately, but you won’t get the story behind the story, the surprising tales that pop up when people relax and get to know one another.

    A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on a family who made a significant gift to further research on autism. It was great news. A nice story. The family lives in my state but on the far side of it, meaning more than an hour’s drive for me, one way. What’s more, the only time they had to talk to me was late on a Friday.

    I already had a boatload of material. I could have phoned them for a few additional answers and followed-up with email. I’m glad I didn’t do that.

    It wouldn’t have been much of a story. I wouldn’t have heard firsthand about their journey with a grandson with autism. When the grandfather recounted the day he heard his grandson say “Grandpa” for the first time in seven years, the storyteller within me said wow. I’ll never forget it. It’s the kind of detail I know that readers will remember to.

    And It might just help someone sort out the anarchy of existence.

    Yep, story telling can be pretty wonderful.

    The Art of Interviewing

    If you can chat over lunch, you can master an interview for writing a great personal story.

    In the past few years, I’ve had some interesting interviews. I talked to a lady who, heartrendingly, broke down into tears while describing the very first time she saw the campus where I work. I also got a detailed personal tour of an insanely extensive, yet somehow charming, collection of duck decoys. Another time, I only got ten minutes to talk with a very generous donor while at the same time orchestrating having his picture taken with our basketball coach.

    Whether you get ten minutes on a basketball court, the whole afternoon at the subject’s home, time via Skype or just over the phone, you can use the same process to write a story with impact.

    I believe it boils down to about seven steps.

    1) Before you do anything, define the purpose so you fully understand it. You should be able to state your purpose in one sentence. It will drive your research, interview and, eventually, the writing and editing.

    2) Background research. Learn about your subject including defining potential themes that will allow you to riff on the spot once you are in the interview.

    3) Request the interview.

    • Identify yourself confidently and without apology.
    • Share your purpose and what you will do with their story.
    • Establish a slightly flexible time limit, i.e. “I don’t expect this will take more than X minutes of your time.”
    • While you are talking, try to get a small sense for how the person might be. Will they be chatty? Are they mainly flattered or suspicious? Stoic or comfortable?

    4) Prepare questions. Some writers resist this in order to “let the source lead the interview.” Personally, I don’t believe that having some prepared questions means you have to doggedly stick to a predetermined structure. You are always free to deviate.

    • As a good rule of thumb, aim for about one question for every three minutes you’ll have.
    • Make sure your questions are designed to draw them out and make them human. Don’t ask “what are your strengths?’ say “what would your colleagues (or rivals or family or friends or someone meeting you for the very first time) say are your strengths?”
    • Be ready to follow-up with questions that will get you the personal elements. Take me back to that day, what were you doing before ABC happened? Where were you living? What was your first thought when you realized XYZ?

    5) Build rapport.

    • Smile, smile, smile! They’ll feel it even if it’s a phone interview.
    • Keep positive and patient no matter what; even if all you’ve heard so far is unusable platitudes.
    • The main thing is to keep things non-judgmental and don’t rush in to fill the void the second your source stops talking.
    • If your source rambles, gently steer them back on course. If need be, say, “I have a few more questions I need to ask and I want to respect your time.”
    • Keep at it to get a few hooks. Instead of “can you tell me something funny that happened?” ask “did anyone ever do XWZ?” If you’ve build a little rapport, most likely they will counter with “No, but…”

    6) The bomb. If there is anything potentially embarrassing, awkward or tough put this near the end—after you’ve built rapport. Allow time for recovery to end things on a positive note.

    7) Conclude. This can either be when you’ve gotten enough material or when you sense your source is tiring of you. I have a standard final question that goes something like this: “Is there anything important that we haven’t talked about?” End with a thank you.

    And what is said in the interview is never enough. A great interview also includes description, context, a fresh way of saying something and nonverbal information about the subject.

    That’s my process. I hope you can find something useful here for your next interview.