Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Three ways to make details work in your content

It seemed a simple question about what she thinks about while swimming long distances. Then Diana Nyad, on NPR's Tell Me More, confessed that on her last long-distance swim, she sang the theme song to "The Beverly Hillbillies" 2,000 times.  And in a golden moment for radio, she started to sing it: "Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed/A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed..."  (Audio's at the link above.)

Black gold, indeed. That's a memorable detail.

Sometimes, many times, I'm in the position of advising clients to remove, reorganize or reduce detail.  All those 300-slide decks.  Facebook posts that vie with the phone book. But compelling details are the ones I'll always let you keep:  They're the ones that make me say "aha!" or "wow" or "I had no idea--what a surprise." The ones that bring me closer to your point, not the ones that push me away.  In this case, I could suddenly picture Nyad in the water, the familiar tune keeping time for her strokes to get her through the boring parts of the swim, with counting to show her progress.

Why do details matter? I think they matter more than ever. These days, we gloss over, skim, scan, snack, graze. We use jargon and buzzwords, shorthand and acronyms. We generalize, group things and summarize.  Our work is major, legendary, all-encompassing...and vague. None of those things help us remember. Nothing sticks. In that environment, compelling details bring your content into sharp focus, make it memorable, tactile, unforgettable. And those qualities connect you with your audiences with power and magnetism.

There's a lot of talk in customer service circles about how companies can "surprise and delight" customers or prospects, but to me, that lies in the details.  Here are some ways to approach the detailed parts of your writing, speaking or content curation so they qualify as compelling:
  1. Does it disclose something?  Mystery, secrets and surprises make details magical.  Steve Buttry's homage to obituary writer Kay Powell is studded with moonshiners who didn't get caught by the revenue agents, United Methodist Women playing poker at their very long meetings, a guy named John Doe who was the most-looked-after patient while in the hospital because doctors and nurses kept dropping by to see who the celebrity was. I want to write a million country music songs based on those details.  I feel as if I know these people a little more. Fortunately, Buttry takes the time to include loads of links to Powell's obits of note so you'll have plenty of examples. But then, this is a detail-collecting journalist who has a Google Map detailing all the places he's worked
  2. Can I see it in my mind? On The Eloquent Woman blog, I've written about how to use details to make your storytelling compelling as a speaker, and writers and content curators can do the same if the stories revolve around concrete details we can visualize.  In my post, the stories include a funny sweater, pictures of children on a mother's bedside table and shower hooks in a girls' dormitory. The 13 toothbrushes belonging to others in the bathroom from Kay Powell's obituary for her mother do the same. Take them out, and the story doesn't sing.  Leave them in and you won't be able to keep that visual from popping into my head.  That makes your story seems more possible, tantalizing or understandable to me (or all three).
  3. Does it convey your enthusiasm?  Here's a factor too often overlooked when speakers present or writers craft a graph. Can I tell you're passionate? Do your details belie an aficionado, a fan, an I've-gotta-share-this mentality?  See how Copyblogger does it by planting "Easter eggs" in his posts for close readers. No comment on whether I do that here, nosiree, just a hat tip to Joe Bonner for sharing this one.  But I get the same feeling when I hear a speaker get excited about an elegant bit of data or find a loving and detailed tribute to a founder on a website.
  4. Does it add spice and flavor? Think of my palate.  Is it a sweet, salty, or bitter detail--something that adds flavor?  A sense of fullness, completion--the umami of your story?  Flavor, when it comes to details and storytelling, can ground the story in a place and time, or tantalize the viewer/reader/listener with something exotic, or bring them back home.  Can I just taste it, without being near it? If so, you've got the detail you want.
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