Paintball in the cemetery? Details matter.

details matter
Black headstone with “paintball splotch” – just to the left and behind the headstone flanked by American flags

How much do details matter? Quite a lot if you actually want your audience to understand what you’re doing.

I thought about that during this morning’s walk in the cemetery. I’ve always felt sad passing one headstone—it looks like someone hit it with paintball gun. There’s a giant blob of white on one side of the black granite stone, with white streaks running down from it.

I haven’t noticed any other acts of vandalism—unless you count family members planting tinsel whirlygigs around grandma’s grave—and I wondered why no one had bothered to clean it up. It felt disrespectful to me.

Today I took a closer look at the stone.

details matter —headstone painting of deer in a forest

It’s not vandalism; it’s art. Well, at any rate it’s not vandalism.

The splotch turns out to be sky; the drips are birch trees. The family of deer, invisible from a distance, look out at the viewer. Is it my imagination, or does Daddy Deer-est have a disgusted look on his face?

The view from afar does not match the up-close reality. Or to put it another way: details matter.

Details matter in writing, too

From time to time, I’ve written corporate applications to those “best companies in the world” surveys. Details matter there too. A lot.

My clients would ask me to write about this nifty program they have, so I’d ask them for information. I’d get PowerPoints explaining the need the program filled; I’d get one-sheets outlining the steps people needed to take to access the program. I’d get everything except the detail the contest sponsor specifically requested: how do the employees feel about it. How did it improve their lives at work, if indeed it did.

Sometimes the thousand-yard view is not the most illuminating. In the case of the contest submission, I’d always want to zoom in closer. Not to the details of how the program works—that’s important to the company, but not to the end user. No, I needed to get a microscopic view of the program. How it works at the smallest, most personal level.

If my submission were this headstone, the contest sponsor would need to see the deer. Everything else is just background noise.

Are you writing what your audience needs to know? Or are you writing what you want to tell them? Sometimes a Venn diagram of those two perspectives would completely overlap; other times, they might barely touch each other.

When in doubt, write for your readers. What do they need to know? Tell them that consistently. Show them the whole picture, because details matter.


Join me on August 22nd in Los Angeles as we look at the details of the remarkable Getty Center. We’ll spend the day finding and talking about stories—and you’ll get some one-on-one coaching time with me too. Details here.

Don’t bury the lede – lessons from the cemetery

You may not know how to spell it, but you’ve all heard the word lede. As in

“Don’t bury the lede.”

The lede (not “lead”) is the most important piece of information in a piece of journalism. Wiktionary adds an important piece of information about the spelling—intended to avoid confusion with the lead (metal) used in setting newspaper type.

Everyone cites Nora Ephron’s example—from her high school journalism teacher—who spun out a long story about the teachers taking a day off the following Thursday to go to some state-wide conference with the Governor (or something). He asked the students to imagine they were writing that story for the school newspaper: what’s the lede?

Surely the “most important” information in that story is that their teachers would be meeting with the Governor, no?

Not for a student audience: the most important detail is “No school on Thursday.” If that’s not the first sentence of the school newspaper’s story, the writer has buried the lede.

gravestones. hopefully no buried ledesBut on my stroll through the cemetery yesterday, I came across a literal case of burying the lede.

There’s a gravestone for a woman named Anne. I’ll call her Anne Surname #1.

What does the stone tell us about Anne?

She’s identified as wife of Peter Surname #1, who died in the 1930s and of Samuel Surname #2, who died in the 1950s.

When did Anne die?

That’s an excellent question—in fact, it’s not a stretch to call it the lede in the story the gravestone tells. But apparently no one thought to answer it.

Yep, the only info we have on Anne is her name—no, not even that—her first married name and her two husbands’ names.

Everybody knows the lede?

Do you find it hard to believe that no one—not the family, not the gravestone-carver—noticed the missing information? I don’t.

How many emails have you received inviting you to events or webinars…but neglecting to tell you when those events might be happening?

When you’re writing for an internal audience at your company, it’s easy to forget details. Maybe not the lede—hopefully not the lede—but many times internal communications tell you what a new program is, but not why it matters to the reader.

Don’t assume that everyone knows. Within your team, maybe. But if you’re trying to reach a wider audience, make sure to get an extra set of eyes on your draft. Have someone who’s not involved in the program give it the once-over. And then answer any questions they have.

I only wish we could do that for Anne.


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Can you be over-prepared?

over-prepared listmakingNo one will ever mistake me for the most organized person in the world. I strive to be prepared, but I doubt I’ll ever make it to “over-prepared.”

Certainly not to the degree of one couple around here. (And yes, “around here” means the cemetery in the midst of which I’m living this month.)

I’ve grown used to seeing gravestones with room for another name or two. Sometimes, for instance, they’ll go ahead and engrave the wife’s name when only the husband has died. I guess they figure it’s a pretty good bet she’ll end up there eventually. On those stones, you’ll see hubby’s name with dates of birth and death and the wife’s name and birth date. That’s preparation.

And then there’s over-preparation. One gravestone here features husband’s and wife’s names and dates of birth. But no second dates.

In the immortal words of Monty Python, they’re

Not Dead Yet.

The plan ahead-stone

Now, I know people pre-plan their funerals. They pre-pay for the services, pick out their burial plot. It takes some of the responsibility off the shoulders of their grieving families. Nice.

I can see picking out a gravestone—voicing your opinions on material, design, font. Surely someone has come up with the wedding registry equivalent for funerals. (If not, a free business idea for you, readers.)

But erecting and engraving your own headstone seems a tad much to me. Are they over-prepared or just overly controlling?

Then again, with some of the gravestones I’ve seen around here, folks might be wise to take things into their own hands…while they still have hands.

I’ve written about graveside decor (soon to be a Martha Stewart magazine, no doubt)—but that’s stuff added to the plot. Some of the more modern stones carry their own decorations. Supposed to be whimsical, I guess.

One features a traditional front—name, dates, etc. But the back of the stone shows  a kitten pawing a ball of yarn on the left corner facing off against…Snoopy as the World War I flying ace on the right corner. The sizes are way off: Kitty looks like Godzilla compared to poor Snoopy. If someone slapped “art” like that on my gravestone, I’d haunt them forever. And report them to the copyright office, too.

Is there a Story Safari™ in this?

Probably. It could be about taking too much control vs. letting things take their course. It could be a about the dangers of giving the wrong people room to exercise their own creativity. It could be about having so many different points of view that none of them makes sense—Godzilla Kitty about to defeat Snoopy’s flying doghouse by rolling a giant ball of yarn into it.

Bonus Story

I saw a pizza stone today.

No, not a stone you put in your oven to make the crust turn crispy. A gravestone with the family name on it: Pizza. It was rectangular, not round; I guess they’re Sicilian.

I can only wonder what travails Mr. & Mrs. P. endured. For instance, imagine this conversation:

“I’d like to order a large pepperoni pie to go.”

“Sure, sir. What’s the name?”

“Pizza.”

“Yes, a pepperoni pizza. What name should I put that under?”

[and…you get the idea]


Whatsamattafayou? You haven’t registered for my Story Safari™ Field Trip to the Getty Center yet? My neighbors here are dying to go—but they can’t. Take advantage of your time aboveground and learn how to spice up your writing as only you can.

Goats 4 Sale—sometimes you need more words

a goat pausing in mid-mealThe other morning I passed one of those signboards with changeable plastic letters. It read:

Goats 4 Sale

Not surprising. There are as many farms around here as there are Dunkin’ Donuts in Boston or Starbucks in New York City. Which is to say, one on every corner and a couple in between.

What stopped me was the fixed part of the sign. Atop the wooden frame that held it in place the business owner had painted the word

Taxidermist

Which made me reconsider just what kind of goats they had “4 Sale.”

How low can you go?

I wrote last week about Stanley, who captured my attention with just one word. But conciseness may not always be the best option.

I have no doubt some would-be goat owners will pass right by the taxidermist’s For Sale sign. They want a goat to milk; not one to dust. I mean, I imagine taxidermied goats need the occasional dusting. The 19th century owl we had as a class mascot through my middle- and high-school years definitely collected his share of airborne detritus. Fun fact: how do you dust a taxidermied owl? With a feather duster, of course.

Anyway, half the people who venture in to buy a goat are bound to be disappointed in the merchandise. And there’s no telling how many potential sales the shop loses to its confusing sign.*

*Okay, it’s possible it’s only confusing to me. I cannot think of a single reason to buy a taxidermied goat. Unless a local high school needs a mascot.)

Are you confusing your audience?

To haul us all back on point: What does this have to do with business writing?

You may be perfectly clear on the benefits of your company’s nifty new program. But you’ve been working on it for six months before it rolled out. You know it backwards and forwards; you’re used to it.

Think about your communications from the point of view of someone coming to it fresh: Have you explained all of the nuances, translated all the jargon? Have you made it as easy as possible for them to figure out exactly what kind of goat you’re trying to sell them? If not, they won’t buy. And that would be baaaaaaaad.

(Sorry.)


Want to learn how to find stories like this in the wild and use them to make your work more unique? Join me in LA on August 22nd for my Story Safari™ Field Trip to the one and only Getty Center.

So what’s the second sentence? — Frequent Questions

Q: I see you want me to write about how important issue X is. So what’s the second sentence?
A: […]?

I love my clients, I really do. But for a while there I had to trot that question out at pretty much every meeting I had with one of them. Until the day they started asking it themselves. (I was so proud.)

You see, they always wanted me to write about Issues of the Day. Usually, about how Important they were. And Good, very Good.

But it’s hard to make that a particularly interesting read:

Company X supports baseball and apple pie.

So I came up with that question:

“What’s the second sentence?”

It got ’em every time. But it started a conversation, and out of that conversation we’d usually find a story or two. And a point of view. On a good day for me, that point of view might even have an edge, something vaguely approaching conflict, if not controversy.

what's the second sentence?Because that’s what you need when you’re writing op-ed essays or other pieces designed to persuade. You need a point of view—preferably one different than someone else’s point of view.

So you can imagine my delight when I heard pretty much those same sentiments coming out of my car’s speakers today. One of my favorite podcast hosts, the always insightful Joan Garry, was interviewing master storyteller Alex Blumberg.

Another way to ask the second sentence question

Blumberg cut his teeth as a producer on the radio show This American Life and now runs podcast juggernaut Gimlet Media, so he knows from telling stories. He and Joan talked for a bit about how to frame stories about issues—Joan’s core audience members run nonprofits, so they always have issues to talk about.

Blumberg said that sometimes he’d have producers come to him and say things like, “I want to tell a story about poverty,” for instance. And he’d say:

“Okay. So what are your questions about poverty?”

You can see why I liked the guy.

Usually, they hadn’t thought that far. Just that poverty was Bad and they wanted to show that

But who doesn’t know that already? So if you want to talk about the issue, you have to find a fresh angle. You have to ask questions. You have to think about the second sentence.

As Blumberg said (I’m paraphrasing, I think):

One of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that because they’re talking about an Important Issue, people will automatically pay attention.

So what’s the second sentence? Figure that out and you’ve got a shot at creating a memorable piece of writing.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. The support and techniques you need to get your work into the world.

Explaining and losing — show, don’t tell

“…there’s a saying in politics: ‘When you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

I just finished reading Al Franken’s book, the modestly titled Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. (It’s a joke; he’s a short man.) And it seemed to me that his old political saying also applies to writing.

“When you’re explaining, you’re losing.” When you explain something to your readers, you lose their attention, you lose their capacity to retain your information. If you’re explaining in your marketing materials, you lose the sale.

“You should eat the steak at Joe’s” vs. “Joe’s serves a steak so tender that I barely needed the knife; once it hit my mouth, it practically melted away on it own accord.”

Which sentence makes you hungrier? And can you tell I had an excellent steak last night? (Though not at “Joe’s,” which exists only in my mind.)

Details! They’re what make Joe’s steak so juicy. And as soon as you hear them, you start to assemble the details into a picture in your mind. It may be a prettier picture for a carnivore than for a vegetarian, but even vegans will subconsciously create a story around Joe’s steak and file it away in their minds.

So let’s see how much you retained—without looking back at the previous paragraphs…

Think about Joe’s steak

What are the first words that pop into your mind?

Explaining vs. making an impact

Explaining makes us writers feel like we’ve accomplished something. There! I told them!
And that’s fine, if the purpose of your writing is to make you feel better. But if you’re trying to get other people to take action, explaining might not cut it.

For instance, some people think marketing means, I’ll tell everyone they need to join my program if they want to be a better writer.

Explaining Writing Unbound, the ideas, skills, and support you needBut effective marketing isn’t about explaining; it’s about showing. So instead of saying, “Register for Writing Unbound and improve your writing,” I might say something like:

Have you ever wished you could dial down the volume on the critical voices in your head and just write?

Most readers will be shouting, “Oh good God, yes!” So I might continue along the lines of:

If you just shouted, “Oh good God, yes!” – hey, I’ve been there too. I know how essential that skill is for writers, so dealing with your critical inner voice is one of the first things we tackle in my Writing Unbound program.

Explaining—”register for my program and improve your writing”—doesn’t invite the reader in. Also, “improve your writing” is a pretty generic claim. In marketing, specifics don’t just help readers paint a picture in their minds, they also make the readers feel like you know and care about what they’re going through. I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve succeeded; I know you can, too.

Al Franken’s right: “when you’re explaining, you’re losing.” It’s true in politics and in “real life,” too.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level or three? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about improvement.

Details pack emotional punch — a song for a Sunday

Today’s songs—yes, two!—come to us via Malcolm Gladwell, whose glorious podcast Revisionist History has returned for a second season. His examination of “The King of Tears,” country music songwriter Bobby Braddock, demonstrates that details pack emotional punch like nothing else.

details pack emotional punch
Braddock knows details pack emotional punch

Few of my readers may be aspiring country songwriters. But whatever genre we write in, we all want our pieces to pack emotional punch. Because that’s what gets them remembered. And—say it with me, folks—”if you don’t want to be remembered, why are you writing in the first place?”

To get at what’s different about country music, Gladwell compares a classic country hit to Mick Jagger’s song “Wild Horses.” Jagger wrote the song while keeping watch over his girlfriend, Maryanne Faithful, who had overdosed on heroin. He’s determined not to leave her side: “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”

Details pack emotional punch

It’s a powerful statement, and visual too. Jagger overcomes the cliché by turning it into a literal promise, vowing that he and his love will ride those wild horses, “someday,” when she’s recovered.

Gladwell compares that song of undying love to one of the lachrymose ballads that were Bobby Braddock’s stock in trade, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

He said “I’ll love you till I die,” she told him “You’ll forget in time”
As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind

He kept her picture on his wall, went half-crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all, hoping she’d come back again

Kept some letters by his bed dated nineteen sixty-two
He had underlined in red every single “I love you”

Every couplet here offers us a detail about the man, his feelings, his sentimentality. Because of those specifics, we don’t just learn about the man. We see him, we have empathy for him.

“Wild Horses” gives us a fact. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” paints a picture. You may not know the latter song right now, but I guarantee that after listening to Gladwell’s podcast, you’ll never forget it.

My favorite version of “Wild Horses” is Susan Boyle’s. Go figure. And for the country song, George Jones sang it first. But I give you Randy Jackson, singing at George Jones’s memorial service at the Grand Ole Opry. But really, you should listen to the podcast first.

Lyrics about Paris — two songs for a Sunday

lyrics about Paris
By Zinneke – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

One of my favorite lyricists, Yip Harburg, wrote a detail-rich song that’s become a classic: “April in Paris.”  Not only had Yip never been to Paris, he’d never left the U.S. of A. He wrote the lyrics based on a close reading of travel brochures.

Yip’s lyrics contain only two details describing Paris. In the verse he writes, “The tang of wine is in the air.” I have no idea what that means.

But in the chorus, an indelible description:

April in Paris
Chestnuts in blossom…

As I understand it, you can see lots of flowers blooming in Paris in  cold, rainy April. But the chestnut trees generally wait for the warmer weather towards May.

Even though it’s not quite an accurate description of Paris, the details of the chestnut trees in blossom captured the imagination of travelers everywhere. Lyrics don’t need to be packed with details to resonate.

Lyrics — Imagination vs. Facts

Contrast this with Cole Porter’s song “I Love Paris.” Unlike Harburg, Porter had actually been to Paris. He could run circles around Harburg with facts about Paris. Do you get a sense of how he felt about it from these lyrics?:

Every time I look down on this timeless town
Whether blue or gray be her skies
Whether loud be her cheers or whether soft be her tears
More and more do I realize that

I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles

I love Paris every moment
Every moment of the year
I love Paris
Why, oh, why do I love Paris?
Because my love is near.

What does that lyric tell you about Paris? Nothing—except that Cole Porter loves it. Or, since he wrote this for the Broadway musical Can-Can, that the character singing the song loves Paris. But it’s just a list song. A fairly boring and lazy one at that (“drizzles/sizzles”—doesn’t do much for me).

Want to profess your love? For me it’s not in the repetition, it’s in the details. Notice the beauty, describe the beauty. Don’t just wear your sweetheart down with a million I love yous.

Details make the story sing

Yesterday I wrote about the classic song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Written in 1908, it remains a staple of baseball games today, sung in every ballpark at almost every game, for nearly 50 years now. While stories vary on when and where the song made its first appearance in a game—go down this Wikipedia rabbit hole if you like—one thing about the song remains indisputable: the songwriters had never been to a baseball game before they wrote the song. So what makes it ring so true for baseball fans everywhere? Details. Details make any story sing. Even those without music.

In this case, actor and lyricist Jack Norworth saw an ad for a baseball game while riding the New York City subway one day. Always on the lookout for fresh material, he wrote the song for his wife, Nora Bayes, to sing in their vaudeville act. When you know the lyrics to the verses, the song makes much more sense sung by a woman.

For the record, the music was written by Albert Von Tilzer, and it remains his only apparent claim to fame since Wikipedia describes him as “the younger brother of songwriter Harry Von Tilzer.”

The chorus, the part of the song that’s remained ubiquitous in ballparks at least since 1971 (though it was sung during the 1934 World Series), is full of the details that evoke nostalgia and pride in baseball fans everywhere. Yet lyricist Jack Norworth never saw a baseball game until 1940—more than three decades after he wrote the song.

Details paint the picture

How do you describe something you’ve never seen? Pile on the details, as many as you can find or invent.

“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.” First sold in ballparks in 1896, Cracker Jack had become a baseball staple by 1908. The specificity of the brand name—vs. the generic “peanuts”—makes this detail come alive.

I don’t see Cracker Jack in the stores as much as I did when I was a kid—maybe I’m not looking in the right places—but I expect we’ll be seeing it in baseball stadiums until they switch over to 3D digitized games we watch through VR headsets. Wikipedia notes that the Yankees tried replacing it with a different coated popcorn treat in 2004 but “after a public outcry” switched back to the brand in the song.

“Root, root root for the home team”—it doesn’t take genius to imagine that’s what fans do. But people are always happy to have happy activities mirrored back to them.

details
Public Domain

“One, two, three strikes, you’re out”—Yes, a novice could get these details from the rule book, or from any news account of a game. But could Norworth have imagined how much satisfaction fans would get from mimicking the umpire like this?

At Mets games, the singalong is “led” by Mr. Met, our oddly disturbing baseball-headed mascot. When you create a mascot with a baseball for a head, how many fingers do you put on his hand? Four, of course: Three so he can count out the strikes in the song, and a thumb to tell the opposing batter to take a hike.

With songs and with mascots, the genius is in the details.


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History, small and large — the storytelling of Jimmy Breslin

History documents the major players: kings, presidents. But as feminist historians have reminded us over the last several decades, if you document only the major players, you miss the lives of tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people. It may seem strange to segue from feminist historians to Jimmy Breslin—the brash, gruff, journalistic legend who died this weekend. Breslin was no feminist. But he did have an eye out for the lives of people who often get passed over: the working stiffs.

Jimmy Breslin, newly minted Pulitzer Prize winner
Photo: Mario Cabrera, AP

Looking at the world through the eyes of the people historians and other journalists ignored, Jimmy Breslin saw so much more than world events; he saw stories. If you want to know about the impacts, large and small, that those events had on actual human beings, read Breslin.

Here’s the lede from a story he filed in 1963:

Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast.

Just two adjectives in that 40-word sentence—three, if you’re going to insist that the hyphenated “three-room” counts as separate words—but you can already see the guy, right? You have a sense of his life. Toward the end of the first paragraph, Pollard’s boss does indeed call him in to work, saying “I guess know what it’s for.”

And then the second paragraph, presented here in its entirety, delivers the kicker:

He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Jimmy Breslin captures details

It seems like Breslin documents every blade of grass around the gravesite.

Leaves covered the grass. When the yellow teeth of the reverse hoe first bit into the ground, the leaves made a threshing sound which could be heard above the motor of the machine. When the bucket came up with its first scoop of dirt, Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, walked over and looked at it.

“That’s nice soil,” Metzler said. “I’d like to save a little of it,” Pollard said. “The machine made some tracks in the grass over here and I’d like to sort of fill them in and get some good grass growing there, I’d like to have everything, you know, nice.”

And then in the second half of the piece, he shows us what became of Pollard’s handiwork. The pivot comes with this sentence:

Yesterday morning, at 11:15, Jacqueline Kennedy started toward the grave.

Breslin seems to observe the events not from the press pool, but from the street:

She walked past silent people who strained to see her and then, seeing her, dropped their heads and put their hands over their eyes.

And when the procession finally arrives at Arlington, back to Clifton Pollard’s territory. He wasn’t at the ceremony, Jimmy Breslin tells us:

Clifton Pollard wasn’t at the funeral. He was over behind the hill, digging graves for $3.01 an hour in another section of the cemetery. He didn’t know who the graves were for. He was just digging them and then covering them with boards.

“They’ll be used,” he said. “We just don’t know when.”

Stories are not about words

It seems safe to say that journalists turned out hundreds of thousands of words about the assassination of America’s handsome president. But only one journalist told us how the earth sounded when they dug his grave. Told us how the guy in the khaki overalls felt “honored” to give up his Sunday for this purpose. Only one journalist took us to the hill behind the gravesite and let us stand there with the “cameramen and writers and soldiers and Secret Service men…saying prayers out loud and choking.”

Jimmy Breslin told stories. Stories are not about words strung together—Breslin understood that better than most. Stories are about details strung together. Details that make events come alive for the reader who can’t get any closer to the action than the words in the paper.

Breslin’s gone now. Who can find the details that make up a great story?

Maybe you?


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