Posted by Alex Vernon on

The mother of all gleaming details

It’s five years since I first wrote about the power of the ‘gleaming detail’ in storytelling. I’d like to mark this mini milestone by sharing what I think of as the mother of all gleaming details. Months after I first heard it, it still makes me feel all glowy and delighted.

But first – a recap. What exactly is a gleaming detail?

I first read about the concept in Bobette Buster’s Do Story: How to Tell Your Story So The World Listens. Bobette said:

“To make a story unforgettable, you need to find that one image that connects with the audience, that ‘Aha!’ moment. This singular image, well positioned, can elevate a story from good… to great. We call this the ‘gleaming detail’ – a term originally derived from that great nation of storytellers, the Irish – for the element that makes a story stand out.”

So – to summarise: a gleaming detail makes your story shine.

Stories of solidarity

Last year, not long before widespread industrial action hit the headlines, the TUC asked Mile 91 to write some stories about successful disputes for its new Solidarity Hub. I’d been part of the Mile 91 team that had worked on the TUC’s 150 Stories campaign, so I knew I had some great interviews in store.

My first story was about a strike at CHEP, an international logistics company with a pallet factory in Manchester. I rang Gary, who works in the factory, and he was the perfect interviewee: warm, chatty, open.

Pay talks had failed, so Gary and his colleagues had downed tools and walked out at midnight on a Friday in December 2021.

UnPALLETable pay offers

Gary described the picket line, which was in a prime spot on a busy road near the Trafford Centre.  Hats off to whoever came up with the pun-tastic banner copy: ‘Don’t be a CHEPskate’. ‘Your pay offers are unPALLETable’.

Chep workers on strike with banner, flags and signs
Gary is behind the banner, second from right

Cars tooted, lorries blared their horns, well-wishers brought food and drink. The strikers kept their spirits up by playing cards, pool and darts and warming their hands by the fire.

All great details, but I wanted more. Did they play music?

“Yeah,” said Gary. “We had a big speaker that we’d charge up and we played some decent music.”

“What kind of music did you play?” I asked.

“All sorts of different stuff… I can’t really think. It was very varied.”

I wasn’t going to let this go. I was after a strike theme song. Something rousing. Living on a Prayer, perhaps.

“There wasn’t a particular song that stands out in your mind?” I pushed. “A track that always got everyone going?”

That’s when it happened.

The mother of all gleaming details

“Actually,” said Gary thoughtfully. “Something that did stick in my head is that we have a classically trained pianist that works nights. Stepan. He’s from the Czech Republic. Why he’s working at our place with that kind of talent, I don’t know.”

“Hang on. Did you say a classically trained pianist…?”

“Yeah. Stepan brought his piano down – a proper piano keyboard – and his fold up stand, and the stuff he could play was unbelievable. We had the fire going and he was playing at 12, one o’clock in the morning. It was brilliant.”

There you have it. A bunch of guys on a picket line huddled round a fire on a freezing December night listening to their colleague playing classical piano.

I had goosebumps. Someone make a movie about this, please! Pride 2, anyone?

Maybe I’ve talked it up a bit too much. Maybe you had to be there, listening to Gary telling it. But I hope you’ll agree that this is a pretty special gleaming detail. I put it right at the heart of the story under the subhead (if cheesy alliteration offends you, look away now) ‘Democracy, darts…and Debussy’.

Dig for your gleaming detail

I knew Gary wouldn’t be bothered by my persistent questioning. But there is, of course, a time and a place for this. If your storyteller is vulnerable – and if you’re working for a charity, there’s a fair chance they will be – I don’t need to tell you to tread gently.

But when it’s safe to do so, make like a dog – and dig! If you’re not getting the kind of answer you’re looking for, try asking the same question in a different way. If your storyteller is talking in general terms, push for the specifics.

Do this and you may just stumble on a gleaming detail that will make your story sparkle. And a story that sparkles will push people to act – to sign your petition, to donate to your appeal or to join your half-marathon. Or perhaps, in this case, to join a union.

Gary, Stepan and their colleagues were on the picket line for 21 long weeks before their employer met their demands. Maybe, at some point during the strike, they did actually play Living on a Prayer. But I’ll take Stepan the pianist over Jon Bon Jovi any day.

Many thanks to Gary and Stepan for letting us share their story, photos and video in this blog, which was originally published via Mile 91

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