Posted by Alex Vernon on

How to get your gleaming detail – and make your good story great

In my last post I wrote about the power of the gleaming detail: that vivid image or moment in a story that makes it unforgettable. Or, as gleaming detail expert Bobette Buster puts it, the image ‘that elevates a story from good…to great’.

If you work in a charity and you’re writing a story that needs to inspire your supporters, ‘great’ is where you’ll want that story to be. So today I’d like to share some tips for unearthing that gleaming detail. (By the way, I’m assuming your story is based on an interview with someone your charity has supported – so that’s the angle I’m writing from).

Before the interview

  • Get the right interviewee. When you’re briefing the person who’s finding your interviewee for you – probably a front-line colleague – ask for someone who’s chatty, warm to your charity and has a good story to tell about the impact your charity has had on their lives. That way you’ll avoid the worst-case scenario of monosyllabic answers and the interview fizzling out after five frustrating minutes. Such interviews rarely feature a gleaming detail!
  • Prepare your interviewee. Set a date and a time to speak and, if it’s a phone interview, get the best number to call them on (a landline is ideal as they’re more likely to sit down and focus on the call). Manage their expectations: tell them the conversation will last at least 30 minutes. You don’t want them to be racing through the interview because they’ve got somewhere else to be. If they’re relaxed, they’re more likely to open up and give you the gleaming detail you’re waiting for.
  • Get your kit ready. Don’t rely on hastily scribbled notes! A good recorder is essential if you want to nail that gleaming detail when it pops up. Have a set of questions ready as a prompt.

    My trusty old recorder helps me capture my interviewee’s authentic voice (and yes, it’s held together by tape. But it still works beautifully!)

During the interview

  • Dig, dig, dig for that gleaming detail. Don’t be afraid to elaborate on your prepared questions and give your interviewee that extra nudge. For example: ‘What are your favourite memories of your son?’ ‘Oooh, I’d say reading to him at bedtime is one of my favourite memories.’ ‘Can you paint a picture of that for me? What kind of books did you read?’ ‘We’d cuddle up on his bed and he’d listen attentively while I read him Noddy books.’ Reading at bedtime is nice, but generic. A little boy snuggled up to his Dad, enraptured by Noddy, is a gleaming detail. You’ll know instinctively when your gleaming detail comes along. If it’s really shiny, you may even find your heart beating a little faster.

    Ok, I know it’s a bit tenuous…but there’s definitely some gleaming going on in this shot of my Rosie in the Dorset sea.

After your interview

  • Transcribe your call. Make sure you get the best bits as close to word-for-word as you can so that when you write the story, you’ll capture your interviewee’s real voice.
  • Leave your transcript for a day or two. If you’ve had a very honest and emotional interview, you’re in dangerous territory: you’ll be attached to your transcript and you’ll think every detail is a gleaming detail. But chances are your word count is limited, so you’ll need to be ruthless. Editing – or ‘killing your darlings’ – will be much easier if you’ve had a chance to distance yourself from your transcript.
  • Write up the story. You might like to feature your gleaming detail in the title or in a pull-quote. Ask a trusted colleague to read/proof the story and ask them if they were struck by anything (and hopefully they’ll quote your gleaming detail back at you as they blink back the tears!)
  • Email the story to your interviewee. Make any edits they request and check they’re happy with the final version. (While you’re at it, encourage them to send you a nice pic of themselves to go with the story – as long as they don’t want to be anonymous of course. And if your charity doesn’t have one, here’s CharityComms’ handy new consent form template).
  • Send the story out into the world and watch it sparkle!


Posted by Alex Vernon on

Why every story needs a ‘gleaming detail’

7th March 2018 – I’m dedicating this post to my dear friend Adam Jacques, a brilliant writer and all-round legend (and definitely one of my life’s gleaming details).

My job involves lots of phone interviews, mostly with people sharing their stories about how they’ve been helped by a charity. Occasionally I come off the phone feeling a bit flat – I’ve got all the answers I need, but something’s missing. Other times I hang up the phone feeling moved, energised, excited about listening back to the interview and writing up the story. Why? I’ve unearthed a ‘gleaming detail’ – and it’s going to make the story sparkle. 

Image from The Do Book Co.

I first read about the gleaming detail in  ‘Do Story – how to tell your story so the world listens’ by the brilliantly named Bobette Buster. And I’ve been looking for gleaming details in stories, films and even songs ever since.

Here’s Bobette on the gleaming detail:

“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.”

For me, the gleaming detail is a vivid, emotive mental snapshot that stays with me long after I’ve hung up the phone or walked out of the cinema. Speaking of which, here’s a gleaming detail I found in a film recently…

A bendy straw in a glass of juice

If you see the film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, look out for the orange juice scene. A badly beaten-up hospital patient (I don’t want to give anything away, so let’s call him Arthur) is unaware that his new room-mate is his attacker (Biff). A separate incident has left Biff covered in bandages and unrecognisable. Arthur offers Biff a glass of orange juice. But then Biff confesses his identity. Arthur is shocked and angry. But moments later he gently places a glass of juice on Biff’s bedside table and even carefully positions the bendy straw so that it’s easier for the incapacitated Biff to reach for.

Arthur’s delicate positioning of the straw is my gleaming detail – the bit I gushed about to my family as we left the cinema. In a brutal film with several high-drama set pieces, it’s a tiny but loaded moment that represents two of the story’s themes: compassion and forgiveness.

Here are a couple of gleaming details from my work:

A missing boy’s bedtime story

Last year I interviewed Peter for the charity Missing People. In September 1988, Peter’s 15-year-old son Lee went missing after going out to watch a football match. Devastatingly, Lee has never been found.

When I asked Peter about his favourite memories of Lee, he described Lee ‘listening attentively’ while he read him Noddy books at bedtime. There was my gleaming detail – a little boy, warm and safe in bed, his father cosied up next to him reading aloud from a picture book. It’s a scene played out in millions of kids’ bedrooms around the world every night. But what happened to Lee and Peter later makes this ordinary scene extraordinary – and heartbreakingly poignant. (And speaking of poignant, here’s Peter performing with the Missing People Choir on Britain’s Got Talent.)

“Oh, I’ve been out at my groups!”

A while ago I interviewed 12 lovely Victim Support volunteers about helping victims of crime. Unsurprisingly, the same themes kept coming up – the importance of active listening and being non-judgemental, how volunteering was an eye-opener. All good, valid stuff, but I was waiting for what Bobette describes as that ‘Aha!’ moment. And then Sarah provided it.

Sarah told me about Jean, an elderly victim of burglary. Jean was very lonely so Sarah suggested she get involved with charities like Age UK. As Jean was too nervous to call the charities herself, they phoned them together. That was a turning point: Jean started going to events like tea parties and bingo and soon Sarah struggled to get hold of her. “I’d call Jean and the phone would ring and ring,” said Sarah. “When I’d finally get hold of her she’d say, ‘Oh, I’ve been out at my groups!’ She told me, ‘Thank you so much Sarah – it’s all down to you.’ That really brought a tear to my eye.” It bought one to mine, too.

Now I’m working extra hard to find gleaming details in all my interviews. Sometimes just a gentle nudge for elaboration on an earlier answer is all it takes to draw out something dazzling. It’s the difference between hanging up the phone feeling a bit indifferent and hanging up the phone feeling utterly inspired – and raring to write the story.

Posted by Alex Vernon on

An afternoon’s bowling and a free drink? Pah! Why charities should be investing in stories to make their staff happy

I’ve long been rabbiting on to anyone who’ll listen about beneficiary stories and how they’re one of the best tools (if not THE best!) at a charity’s disposal for getting supporters on board. But recently I’ve been struck by the huge impact a great beneficiary story can have on a different audience: the charity’s very own staff.

Victim Support home page
Many people describe the help they’ve had from Victim Support as ‘life-saving’.

Over the last six months I’ve been working with Crest Advisory on a big project for Victim Support. I’ve interviewed dozens of staff, volunteers and beneficiaries and discovered just what an important and effective charity it is.

Victim Support helps victims of crime – anyone from elderly people who’ve been burgled, to children affected by domestic violence, to victims of hate crime, trafficking, anti-social behaviour, terrorism…the list goes on.

Time and time again, I’ve heard beneficiaries describing the help they’ve had from Victim Support as ‘life-saving.’ As you can imagine, such sentiments are music to this charity writer’s ears – you don’t get much more powerful than ‘life-saving’ when it comes to stories that will inspire supporters.

But never mind the supporters (for the moment at least). What about the people working their socks off to provide that life-saving support – the staff? Don’t they deserve to be inspired too?

Of course they do. And at Victim Support, they are. I’ve been sending beneficiary stories to teams across the UK and their responses have made my day:

“This is an amazing read. I’m so proud of my team here in Cornwall and stories like this remind me why I do the job I do.”

“Ah that story is lovely – I feel like crying!”

“Thanks so much for sending that through. It really is nice to read such positive feedback and makes me feel even more pleased that I do this job.”

I was wondering what pics to put in this post when I spotted Rosie – a wonderful beneficiary story lying right at my feet! We found our beloved pooch at the RSPCA Bristol Dogs and Cats Home and a few weeks later we posted a photo of her, delighted with her new home, on the charity’s facebook page. The team loved the pic so much that they republished it in their newsletter. I like to think that by sharing Rosie’s happy ending, we inspired the RSPCA staff to keep doing what they do. Woof!
I was wondering what pics to put in this post when I spotted Rosie – a wonderful beneficiary story lying right at my feet! We found our beloved pooch at the RSPCA Bristol Dogs and Cats Home and a few weeks later we posted a photo of her, delighted with her new home, on the charity’s facebook page. The team loved the pic so much that they republished it in their newsletter. I like to think that by sharing Rosie’s happy ending, we inspired the RSPCA staff to keep doing what they do. Woof!

So the case for charities investing in stories grows stronger! The benefits are bountiful. Your beneficiaries gain satisfaction from sharing their stories because it’s a way to ‘give something back’ to the charity. Those stories can then become compelling content – for your website, social media, appeals, grant applications, donor reports, newsletters – that will excite your supporters. And, as my work with Victim Support illustrates, those same stories will give your staff a warm glow, reminding them exactly why they do what they do and motivating them to keep doing it.

So what should you do the next time your employers invite you out for some staff-morale-boosting bowling and a drink on them? Suggest that next time, that bowling and booze money might be better spent on producing a great new beneficiary story. I’ll wager that its impact will last far longer than a free glass of Pinot.