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

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!