Remember that interesting couple you met at the party, the ones from my last blog installment? Well, picture this: you come home from that same party and tell your wife that you’d like to invite them over for dinner sometime.
“Okay, but which couple?” she replies. “We met a ton of people tonight, Charles.”
“Joel and Erica—you remember.”
“I don’t remember. I had, like, three or five martinis.”
“Joel was 6 feet tall, 196 pounds. He was born April 2, 1973, in Skokie, Illinois, and–”
“How many martinis did you have?” she asks, dabbing off her lipstick with a paper napkin. “I have no idea who you’re talking about.”
“Erica had a bright turquoise owl necklace and wore a little too much lavender perfume. Joel was wearing the blue bow tie, and you said he laughed like Eddie Murphy. We bumped into them at the fridge when we were all looking for extra olives, and you accidentally opened the freezer door into his head, and he said ‘Don’t worry, there’s ice right here!’ and stuck his head in the freezer.”
“Oh, of course,” she says. “Joel and Erica.”
Facts, figures and dates can be essential to a corporate narrative’s authenticity, but trying to jog someone’s memory or inspire emotional connection using numbers is typically fruitless. Scenes that include dialogue and visuals—as well as other sensory detail—can help forge both memory and emotion in the “mind’s eye.”
Caption: At the outset, our audiences are all metaphorically blind. It’s our job as storytellers to help them see.
When we tell the story of an organization’s founder, their birthdate and birthplace may sit on a shelf of vital statistics, but we’re much more interested in exploring who the person was, and how their words, actions and appearance illustrate their character. Was he always decked out in a three-piece suit and starched shirt? Or was he a roll-up-your-sleeves type, fingernails stained with motor oil? Did he saunter deliberately through the board room, forcing those around him to conform to his relaxed pace? Or did he nearly sprint from meeting to meeting, as if racing some unseen opponent?
Filmmakers take great pains to develop sets, lighting, sound effects, hair and makeup—also known as mise-en-scéne—to create a believable world for the audience. So, too, in other forms of storytelling. In his seminal book On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner writes: “Good fiction sets off . . . a vivid and continuous dream in the reader’s mind.”
Of course, corporate histories are nonfiction. Taking liberties in regard to details and dialogue can yield a narrative that is overly dramatic or, worse, fabricated. This is where first-person accounts come in handy. In addition to newspaper editorials, letters, journals and other detail-rich archival materials, we use oral histories and StoryARC™ sessions to glean memories directly from those who experienced moments in a company’s recent or more distant past.
Consider the following Wikipedia sentence: “Corona started under the name ‘Discoverer’ as part of the WS-117L satellite reconnaissance and protection program of the US Air Force in 1956.”
Now, this one: “Program manager Jim Plummer holed up in a rented motel room on El Camino to begin working on the technical drawing for the top-secret Project Corona, until heavy rains came in and ‘the whole darn motel was under water.’”
There’s a time and place for the first sentence, but the second sentence conveys a sense of specificity, detail and human-level challenges that the first sentence doesn’t achieve.
Specific, personal stories and quotes bring color to otherwise drab and shapeless milestones. Sensory details and dialogue—the lifeblood of scenes—help engage audiences viscerally and emotionally. We may not aspire to the fiction writer’s goal of creating the “vivid and continuous dream,” but we can still aspire to cast reality with substance and authenticity.
We invite you to see where this storytelling series began and how it resolves. Follow along and feel free to send us your exceptions to the rule.
- Shaping Your Story
- Relying on Truths vs. Fictions
- Delivering a Story for Each Audience
- Starting Before Your Founding Date
- Finding Compelling Drama in Challenge and Conflict
- Crafting Details and Scenes, not Dates and Statistics
- Setting Up the Sequel, Writing Your Future