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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

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 never once believed it was going to kill me.”

The ‘amazing interviewee’ that I mentioned briefly at the start of my last blog is now live on Penny Brohn Cancer Care’s homepage!

Penny Brohn Cancer Care's homepage
Helen’s the brunette in the middle!

I met Helen at Penny Brohn Cancer Care’s beautiful centre in Pill, near Bristol, in July 2013. She was a dream to interview: eloquent and honest.

Helen describes being diagnosed with ovarian cancer – “the silent killer” – and her journey from disbelief to fury to acceptance. She heaps praise on Penny Brohn Cancer Care, which played a crucial role in her recovery. And she urges us to make a donation to the charity with this devastatingly accurate rationale: “Everybody’s life is going to be touched by cancer… it’s not going away. So if you like, it’s an investment in your future.”

I produced two edits of Helen’s interview for the charity. There’s a two minute clip for the average listener (though I’m sure some would argue that two minutes is beyond many people’s attention span…we shall see). And there’s an eight minute feature for listeners with more time to invest – or, perhaps more accurately, a deeper connection with the charity, with ovarian cancer or with Helen herself.

You can listen to Helen’s story here.

If you like what I’ve done with Helen’s story and think something similar could work for your organisation, I’d love to hear from you. Do get in touch.