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

“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!

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Relax and eat posh biscuits: tips for applying to newspaper charity appeals, part two

So! You’ve read part one of my guide to newspaper charity appeals and so finely crafted is your application that you’re pretty sure it’s going to go all the way. Or at least to the next stage: the short-listing.

The Telegraph's offices in Victoria - pic from
The Telegraph’s offices in Victoria – pic from

Quick recap: last year, when I was working for the disability charity Motivation, we applied to the 2012 Telegraph Christmas Appeal – and got it! Based on my experiences of being short-listed and invited to the Telegraph’s offices to meet the appeal’s decision makers, here are some (hopefully handy) insights. I imagine they’re relevant for the other newspapers too.

1. It’s still all about the stories

You pitched your best story ideas in your application and you’re afraid of repeating yourself. Don’t be. The judges read dozens of story ideas during the application process and may well have forgotten yours (despite the fact that those ideas have got you this far).

So now’s not the time to list your formal charitable objectives. Instead, focus on your most moving beneficiary stories. Share them with colour and emotion and honesty and your panel will be hooked. And with any luck, a few months down the line their Christmas appeal readers will be too.

2. If you can, take a beneficiary

To prepare for our meeting, I spoke to two 2011 beneficiary charities – AfriKids and Riding for the Disabled. Both were very open and helpful. Riding for the Disabled described how they’d taken one of their beneficiaries to meet the Telegraph. That person talked about the difference the charity had made to them. This, as you’d imagine, went down a treat.

David and Jen from Motivation overlooking the Telegraph newsroom (and some peskily placed fire extinguishers...)
David and Jen from Motivation overlooking the Telegraph newsroom (and some peskily placed fire extinguishers…)

Motivation is a mostly international charity, so we couldn’t take a beneficiary to our meeting. But our three-strong team did include two people who had lots of experience of working directly with beneficiaries and could talk with passion and authenticity about the difference Motivation was making to them. Both wheelchair users, my colleagues David and Jen both had compelling stories of their own to tell too, which I’m pretty sure played a big part in our success.

In summary: take a beneficiary if you can. If you can’t, take staff with first-hand experience of working with beneficiaries. Oh – and don’t feel compelled to invite your directors / heads of / trustees etc. The panel won’t care about job titles and hierarchy. They just want to hear from people who’ve experienced the impact the charity is making.

3. Don’t spend days preparing a gorgeous, glossy PowerPoint

Luckily, we’d kept our PowerPoint presentation pretty simple. But we had invested quite a bit of time in choosing for it the most powerful images of our work that we could lay our hands on.

On the day, the members of the panel were seated down one side of a long table. We, the Motivation team, sat opposite them. Our presentation was on a screen at the far end of the table.

Alas, the panel barely glanced at the screen. They were too busy looking at us. And they continued to focus on us as fab pic after fab pic went by unobserved. Frustrating! But at the same time, rather refreshing. It really felt like they valued what we had to say.

So the meeting was more of a dialogue than a presentation – and I think it would have been perfectly acceptable if we’d turned up utterly PowerPointless (a scary thought, nonetheless).

4. But do show videos. Short ones.

The panel missed the pics, but our films got their attention. We showed two – both short. The first was a rough-and-ready 30-second clip of Motivation’s rough terrain wheelchairs in action. The second was a professional, one-minute film featuring Afghanistan’s first ever wheelchair basketball tournament. With these little tasters of our work, I think we got it just right. A longer, more generic intro-style film might have got the panel a little twitchy.

This is what comes up when you search for 'posh biscuits' in Google images. Good old M & S.
This is what comes up when you search for ‘posh biscuits’ in Google images. Good old M & S.

5. Relax – and eat their biscuits

“Today’s a special day – we’ve got the posh biscuits,” a member of the panel told us as we were ushered into the meeting room. This throwaway comment made quite an impression on me. I realised that no matter how impressive and intimidating and utterly different from our humble charity office the Telegraph HQ happened to be, the members of the panel were just normal people who wanted to hear good stories and eat nice biscuits. Phew.

I hope these insights are useful. Good luck! And if you’d like any help with your charity’s newspaper appeal application, please get in touch.