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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.

Posted by Alex Vernon on

“I told a girl I had arthritis and she said, ‘Oh, is that all?’”

Last year I interviewed beneficiaries of the charity Arthritis Care as part of a big story-gathering project with Mile 91. I wrote this blog for Mile 91’s website.

Rowena (on the right) tells me about the help she's had from Arthritis Care
Rowena (on the right) tells me about the help she’s had from Arthritis Care

I’d always thought I was well acquainted with arthritis, as both my sister and my mum live with pretty nasty forms of it.

But it wasn’t until I interviewed others with the disease – people I didn’t know – for the charity Arthritis Care that I really started to grasp what it’s like for my mum and sister.

It sounds like I have a distant, dutiful-phone-calls-three-times-a-year type relationship with my family, right? Actually, the opposite is true – we speak every day. If anything we care too much, regularly working ourselves into irrational frenzies of worry about each other. It’s exhausting!

You can find this post in full on Mile 91’s website. Thanks for reading!