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Storytelling for Leaders: Details

This lesson is a part of an audio course Storytelling for Leaders by Paul Andrew Smith

A few years ago, my wife and I took our two boys to the Grand Canyon. And while we were there, we coaxed a local scientist named Bob Woolley to take us on a day trip to see Meteor Crater. If you’ve not been there, it’s literally a one-mile-wide hole in the ground caused by a meteor impact 50,000 years ago.

But instead of just driving us up to the edge of the crater and telling us about it, Bob stopped a few miles from the edge and told us to get out of the car. Then he told us a story about what it must have been like to have been in that spot 50,000 years earlier as that 150-foot-wide chunk of iron was hurtling to the Earth at over 3,000 miles per hour. He described—in breathtaking detail—how fast it was traveling, how it would have glowed from the friction with the air and the pressure wave building up in front of it, and exactly how and when pieces of it might have broken off on the way down.

And as he was describing every minute detail, three of us were looking right at him, just riveted to the story. But my then-nine-year-old son Ben was staring off into space. I thought he was just daydreaming—until I heard him say softly under his breath, “Wow, that looks cool.” Clearly, he’d been listening just as closely as the rest of us. In fact, he’d been doing more than listening to the story. He was watching it, up in the sky, as if it was happening right then!

So, having some sensory detail in your stories can help make them more effective. But there are good ways and bad ways to go about that. Let’s start with the bad ones.

Because nothing will make a business audience roll their eyes more quickly than a story with overly elaborate and unnecessary detail. And that usually happens when the storyteller tries to follow their high school English teacher’s advice about using as many of the five senses as possible or giving a clue as to the season.

Now, if you’re writing your first novel, that’s probably great advice. But for a business story, it’s just awful.

You know, imagine yourself as a buyer in a meeting with a salesperson. Then think about your reaction if, in the middle of the meeting, the salesperson answered one of your questions by saying “Well, that’s an interesting question, Bob. You see, it was a warm September morning, and the leaves on the trees outside our Dallas office were finally starting to change color. The smell of lilacs wafting through the lobby was almost strong enough to make us forget about the traffic noise from the highway out front…”

Now, the problem with that opening, and why it sounds so blatantly contrived and lacking in authenticity, is that the details that it provides are probably completely irrelevant to the rest of the story. Does it really matter that it was warm that September morning instead of cold? Does it matter that it was in the morning instead of the afternoon? If so, by all means, put those details in. But if it’s not relevant, it just makes it sound like you’re trying too hard.

So in this case, the better opening to the story would have been, “Well, that’s an interesting question, Bob. In September of last year, we…” And then get right into your story.

Now, to help you get it right, here are three techniques to add detail to your stories that won’t get you in trouble.

First, add details that explain the main character’s motivations, and nothing else.

Because it wasn’t the length of the flowery “warm September” opening that made it inappropriate. It was that it was irrelevant to understanding what was going on in the story. Here’s another example that’s just as long, but the detail is more relevant in explaining why the main character behaved the way he did: it was already 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and Jack hadn’t had any coffee since breakfast. And he was a three-cup-a-day guy—9, noon, and 3. You could set your watch by this guy. But this meeting had been running late all day, the coffee machine was broken, and nobody had the time to make a run to Starbucks. It started to show by about 1 o’clock. You could hear Jack’s heel tapping on the hardwood floor in the conference room as his right leg was nervously bouncing up and down. You could see his eyes getting bloodshot and ears flushing red the more irritated he got. His voice was getting more and more shrill, and he’d been fidgeting in his chair since lunch… and then finally, he just snapped!

Now, in this case, the story is obviously about someone who was about to suffer a mental breakdown. All the detail about his nervously tapping heel and bloodshot eyes and shrill voice give the listener some insight into how he felt and why (he hadn’t had two or three of his daily cups of coffee). And, it shows the buildup to his emotional breakdown.

But hopefully, you can see that all that detail would have been a complete waste of time if instead of Jack snapping, the story had continued, “… and then Jack approved our recommendation and we all went home.”

Okay, technique 2: replace general words with specific ones. For example, if the height of the main character is important, instead of saying, “He was really tall,” say, “He was at least 6 foot 4.” And, whenever possible, refer to your characters by name instead of just job titles. It’s easier for your audience to care about “Julie, from accounting” than it is to care about the accounts payables clerk.

Alright, technique 3: use a metaphor or an analogy to explain complex ideas. A metaphor helps your audience understand an abstract idea in concrete and more familiar terms. So, it’s similar to adding details to your story, except in this case it uses fewer words, not more. And it works because a metaphor is simply a reference to something similar your audience already has a detailed understanding of in their head.

So, instead of trying to describe the complex set of thoughts and emotions that your character was having about their impending deadline, you might just describe it as “like an 18-wheeler bearing down on him on the highway with no way around it”, or “a dark cloud” following her around.

With a little creativity, you can come up with all kinds of metaphors to bring the details of your story to life, without adding a lot of extra words.

Okay, in the next lesson, we’ll talk about how to avoid the dangers of embellishing your stories, but without getting too caught up in the details.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith