Moses on the mountain — a Story Safari

The sermon at church yesterday was part Art History,  part theology, and part—although the rector didn’t realize this—part Story Safari.

What’s a Story Safari? I haven’t written about them recently, so let’s recap. It’s the name I’ve given to analogies and metaphors found in the wild. Sometimes we hunt them down, sometimes they just wander into church while we’re listening to the sermon. But always these metaphors or stories help elucidate a larger point.

After the Old Testament lesson about Moses on the mountaintop surveying the Promised Land, the Rev. Dr. Judith Davis pointed out a reproduction of a painting that she’d pinned to a wall: Frederic Edwin Church’s Moses Viewing the Promised Land.

Does it remind you of anything?

Story Safari
By Frederic Edwin Church – Art Renewal, Public Domain

A murmur went through the choir the moment we saw the photograph. Because of course, Church’s painting is the direct antecedent of…

An artist might call the Church painting a “reference”—and it is. But it’s more than just a similar arrangement of rocks and figures. It’s a visual analogy. (Click on the Lion King photo, by the way, if you’d like to see the whole video.)

How is this a Story Safari?

Maybe you’ve never seen the Church painting before. Or maybe you saw it once, flipping through your Art History book, and it’s been lodged somewhere in the furthest recesses of your brain. When you see The Lion King, the connection might not register consciously. But it’s there.

So practically the moment that scene from the movie hits your retina, you’ve already “read” it. Add some words and you’ve got yourself a Story Safari. This is how I might do it:

Simba the lion cub is a younger, furrier version of Moses. Like Moses, he will lead his people—er, lions. And, if I remember the plot correctly, an assortment of other animals too.

I witnessed a surprising Lion King moment at both Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds games this summer. As “The Circle of Life” played on the speakers, the cameras swept the stands. One after another, parents stood up and hoisted their infants aloft, just like in the picture.

Are they saying, “Behold my child, who will rule all of the land between the foul lines”? Or “Behold my child, a baseball fan”? That may be in the backs of some people’s minds, but I think it’s just about the 15 seconds of fame on the big Diamondvision scoreboard.

And that might launch us into a discussion of the kinds of things people will do to get attention.

The power of visual analogies

Visual analogies work fast. That’s one of the reasons one picture is worth 1,000 words. And they can trigger our emotions. But they’re also complex, and complexity makes them memorable. I’m not likely to forget the tiny baseball fans, legs and arms waving, as their fathers held them as high as possible. The Cubs and the Reds now have some real estate in my brain. (Probably other teams do this too, but the feature hasn’t made it to New York yet.)

Using visuals can be tricky. I’m not a big fan of slides accompanying a speech—I’d rather have the audience focus on my speaker. But if a visual analogy can help move your story along or make it memorable in a way that words cannot, then go for it.

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Baseball, writing, and business

Three pillars of my life: Baseball, Writing, and Business. The order changes depending on what time of year it is and how well my team has played. But give me those three things and I’m happy.

Sports seem to bring out the best in writers: the scribes who churn out copy at an unconscionable pace for the web and print media; writers like Roger Angell and George Will (yes, that George Will) who have the luxury of writing more leisurely, long-form accounts; and the play-by-play announcers, who have to generate eloquence in real-time as they describe the game in progress.

And for real eloquence, listen to a ballgame on the radio. Those announcers don’t just to tell us about the action, they have to paint the entire picture—the fans in the stands, the sun in the outfielder’s eye. They create context, which Chip and Dan Heath note in their book Made to Stick is “the way to get people to care.” With all due respect to Roger Angell, George Will, and the hundreds of beat reporters, for my money the radio guys (as far as I know in baseball they’re all still guys) are the best writers in the game.

Bob Costas, himself quite a fine writer (check back here on Sunday with a box of Kleenex for my thoughts on his eulogy for St. Louis Cardinals legend Stan Musial), notes that successful announcers need certain skills: “The command of the English language, the terrific sense of drama, the ability to tell a story.” The best have one or two of these, but the very best—and I’ll give it away now by noting that the Costas quote comes from a recent Sports Illustrated cover story, a Tom Verducci profile of Vin Scully—have all three: “[I]t’s as if you had a golfer who was the best off the tee, the best with the long irons, the best with the short irons, the best short game and the best putting game.” (I know nothing about golf, but I appreciate that some of you know nothing about baseball. Thanks for reading this far.)

Vin Scully, a first class baseball writer (radio division)

Scully has been the radio voice of the Dodgers since 1950; he later added some television duties for the team. He’s also been the broadcaster of record for many World Series and other signature baseball events. (Disclaimer: My affection for the man has nothing much to do with his narration of the pivotal play when my Mets won the Series in 1986.)

But this isn’t just about baseball. I’ve already hinted at what Scully has to teach us about writing: Set the context to get people’s attention. He also has a thing or two to teach us about business. Verducci describes the secret of Scully’s success:

“He reached such an exalted position not by talking about himself, not by selling himself, or, in the smarmy terminology of today, by ‘branding’ himself, but by subjugating his ego. The game, the story, the moment, the shared experience….They all matter more.”

Let’s agree that branding doesn’t need to be “smarmy.” But the point resonates with me. As a longtime ghostwriter I’m very clear that it’s not about me and what I want to say—it’s about my clients and what they want to say. The story they want to tell, the experience they will share with their audience.

That’s not to say I don’t offer my opinion. If I think a client is making a mistake, I’ll weigh in. But in the end, I’ve always been clear that it’s their work, not mine.

I’m proud to know that my instincts match Scully’s ethos. He’s one of the best at what he does. Not a bad professional to emulate.