Name names, number numbers
I still remember — more than a decade later — one of the thousand heartbreaking stories about Hurricane Katrina victims, an AP report about the Superdome evacuation:
Many people had dogs, and they could not take them on the bus. A police officer took one from a little boy, who cried until he vomited. “Snowball, Snowball,” he cried.
As powerful as that story is — the poor child cried until he vomited, for gosh sakes — the two most wrenching words are “Snowball, Snowball.”
Why? Because details drive stories.
As The Poynter Institute’s editorial guru Roy Peter Clark counsels:
“Get the name of the dog.”
Name names and number numbers. Get specific, tangible detail.
1. ‘The name of the dog makes the story real.’
I can’t explain why, but the story is incomplete, and barely satisfying, without the name of the dog. In fact, I’m more interested in the dog’s name than the villain’s name. Was its name Sid or Nancy, Butch or Fluffy, Aries or Ariel? The name of the dog makes the story real.
So “get the name of the dog, the brand of the beer, the color and make of the sports car,” Clark counsels.
2. Tubby, we hardly knew ye.
William H. Broad named names when writing about the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in an article about how engineers use disasters to learn to improve structures:
Notice how “black cocker spaniel” is more effective than “dog” and how “Tubby” is more effective than “black cocker spaniel” alone.
3. Concrete passages more understandable.
The other day, I was working with communicators at a financial services organization on their content marketing pieces. For a story on the organization’s financial camps for kids, they’d written:
Pretty abstract; pretty dull. I encouraged them to find a concrete detail to liven things up.
What have your kids done when they were bored? I asked. And from the back of the room, one communicator yelled out:
“They painted the schnauzer.”
Oh, I think we have a lead, I said. What color did they paint him? The communicator answered:
“They used Pepto-Bismol.”
Oh, I know we have a lead.
Just one more thing … What’s the name of the dog?
Show, don’t just tell.
Concrete details are among the more than 6 types of concrete material to try.
So you know what to do: Get the name of the dog.
How can you make your message more interesting, understandable and memorable with concrete details?
What questions do you have about concrete details?
Source: Roy Peter Clark, The American Conversation and the Language of Journalism, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies (St. Petersburg, Fla.), 1994