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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Exclamation marks and hot peppers

Why are exclamation marks like hot peppers? Use both sparingly.

Tomorrow, we in the U.S. wrap up a presidential campaign that’s seemed at times like a bowlful of hot peppers served up as an entrée. And when I say “wrap up,” I really want that to mean “finish.” But will it just be the start of something even nastier? Whichever way the vote goes, I don’t have much hope of Civility returning to our political discourse anytime soon. I think she’s run away to Canada, with their hunky prime minister and universal healthcare.

But back to writing.

Discussions have gotten heated during this election season. Exclamation marks have emerged—and not just for the Cubs’ victory, which really deserves them.

Seriously, if your team wins the World Series after more than a century of disappointment, you have my full and complete permission to !!!!! until your finger gets tired. Then rest and !!!!! some more. But that exception is unlikely to apply to anyone else in the foreseeable future, so we’d better learn the proper way to use exclamation marks.

And so I give you a handy flowchart Beth Dunn put together over at Hubspot. Read it, commit it to memory—and then please, for your readers’ sake, heed its advice.

Beth Dunn's flowchart helps you decide when to use exclamation marks
Handy flowchart written by Beth Dunn & designed by Tyler Littwin

You may feel excited after the election results come in. That’s perfectly okay. But don’t look just at the upper left quadrant of your keyboard to express that emotion. Exclamation marks don’t say “I’m excited!” as much as they say, “I’m a lazy writer.”

Exclamation marks or words?

So how do you express excitement? As your mother may have said: “Use your words.”

That’s what Beth Dunn says too. More than once. Here, look at the subliminal message in her post subtly titled “Lay Off the Exclamation Marks, Buddy.”

“Exclamation marks are singularly unsuited to the task of getting your users excited about using your product. And yet they seem to be the tool that everyone reaches for first when excitement is what they want to create.”

She’s writing about marketing communications—her area of expertise—but the advice applies universally. If what you’re writing doesn’t convey excitement, then write something that does.

“And if your product is awesome, then you don’t need to gild the lily with frantic words and shouty little exclamation marks.”

So let’s not shout. And let’s ease up on the hot peppers too. Let’s give Civility a call and see if she’d like to come back to a slightly warmer climate. Toning down the rhetoric—that’s another great way to avoid exclamation points.

Steve Goodman and the Chicago Cubs

My Cubs jersey in tribute to Steve Goodman
Birthday present from the spousal unit

This Mets fan watched the historic game that began last night and ended in the wee hours of this morning as I’ve watched all the World Series games this year: wearing an authentic Cubs jersey.

If you spend enough money, you can personalize the jerseys with a name and number. Mine says GOODMAN, for the brilliant singer-songwriter and long-suffering Cubs fan Steve Goodman. I assigned Steve the number 48, for the year of his birth.

Although the lyric says “the Cubs are gonna win today,” the team plays the song only AFTER a win. One of the best things for me about watching these post-season games has been hearing Steve’s song playing over the stadium loudspeakers and tens of thousands of fans singing along with him.

In my eyes, Steve Goodman was the quintessential Cubs fan. Perpetually disappointed, he kept coming back to Wrigley year after year. Here he is, singing his second most famous Cubs song while sitting in the “friendly confines” of Wrigley itself.

Many people didn’t realize it, but Steve was the “dying Cubs fan.” Diagnosed with leukemia at age 20, doctors told him not to expect to see 21. But he fought hard and hung on until he was 36—dying three weeks before the Cubs secured their first postseason spot since World War II. Years later, his brother got someone to sneak him into the ballpark and he sprinkled some of Steve’s ashes in the outfield.

I’m happy for all of Cubs Nation as the team finally broke the curse. But I’m happiest for Steve. Wherever he is, I know he’s singing.

Learn more about Steve here. #GoCubsGo! See you next season.