February 25, 2016

Check Your Story’s Focus or Lose Your Audience

An author's greatest asset is the ability to shape what details the audience can see. This insight came to me during a talk by Experience Institute all-star photographer Kevin Von Qualen. Kevin showed my class how a great photo really comes down to choosing your focus. A creator, in any art form, must decide what stays in the frame and what is cropped out.

A skilled storyteller narrows the frame of view to just the important details. Imagine taking a picture on your phone of a fire juggler from 100 feet away at a crowded outdoor mall. In your mind, you’re about to take a great picture, but the result is a haphazard mess of people and stores. The blurry orange of fire in the distance holds none of the brilliance of the performer. For the best picture, you need to move closer to the subject or find better equipment.

Now imagine you’re up close to that fire juggler. About to take the shot, you notice excited audience members’ faces lit by the flame in wonder. You include them in the picture and it tells a story of an emotional reaction to the fire juggler.

Stories resonate when edited toward authentic emotion. Authenticity is the result of credibility, trust and delivery. Each detail should support the story’s mission to elicit the desired response.

Left to its own devices, a story loses form depending on the details. A teenager tells you his day at school was simply “fine.” A first grader details every moment of the day without reflection. The best story lies in the middle—a story of authentic feeling and reflection supported by details.

George Washington understood the power of authentic emotions in storytelling. At the end of the Revolutionary War, General Washington’s work was not over. His disgruntled officers met in secret to discuss overthrowing the Continental Congress. Washington showed up unannounced, but with a prepared speech.

The speech was not well received. Washington moved onto a letter from a congressman, but only got through a few lines. “Gentlemen,” Washington said, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country."

Washington never wore glasses in public and his admitted vulnerability shocked the men. He leveraged his own weakness to support the Continental Congress’ cause. Instead of explaining away the glasses, he used the detail as a source of vulnerability. The moment of emotion was key to Washington’s persuasion.

I first heard this Washington story from my high school history teacher, Mr. Hughes. Mr. Hughes used emotional stories to help draw students into his lectures. Invested in the story, Mr. Hughes acted out the scene, pretending to pull out the glasses. He paused for a moment and with a choked up voice of emotion, delivered Washington's line. The authentic delivery still gives me chills.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, my facts-based history professor in college failed to compel me with the same Washington story. The man droned on, everyday, without emotion. Instead of using the Washington speech as a great story of history, it became merely facts. He listed the event as one of the ways the Continental Congress survived after the Revolution.

It’s important to me that I deliver my Experience Institute year in an authentic story. I hope I will be able to gain meaning from the story of my year and inspire others. This process begins when I get beyond the facts of the program and talk about moments of struggle and triumph. After all, my year is about more than three terms of experiential learning. My year is also about capturing both the wonder and wounds of juggling fire.

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