Thursday, April 25, 2013

"I sure hope folks don't
think I'm gilding the lily."

“What can you tell me about the video?”

“Well, I didn’t completely understand what I was watching at first, but all my Facebook friends told me that I just had to watch it till the end because it would … it would…”

“It would what, ma’am?”

“It would make me … cry.”

“And did you? Cry, I mean.”

“Yes, I did. But not in a bad way. It was a good cry because the message was so real. So … uplifting.”

“I’m not here to judge, ma’am.  Now, please give me a little more detail about this video.”
“Well, there were four or five women in it and they were asked to describe themselves to a forensic artist—a lot like what we’re doing here, in fact! But the artist in the video couldn’t see the women. After he drew their pictures, he asked other people—people who had spent some time with these women—to describe what they thought the women looked like. And … well, you’re just not going to believe this … the portraits that were based on how other people described these women were far more beautiful than the ones based on the women’s self-descriptions. It was so amazing. I’m getting verklempt just thinking about it.”

“Why’s that, ma’am?”

“Can’t you see? Our beauty-based culture has forced women to think they are less beautiful than they really are. You could see that these women had natural, physical beauty. But they just couldn’t see it themselves. There is just no wonder that this video has gotten a virus.”


“You know, been seen by millions of people. It is so powerful.”

“Thanks, ma’am. We’ll be in touch. Next!”

“This video was the biggest crock of sh— the biggest load of malarkey I’ve seen since Kony 2012.”

“How’s that, sir?”

“People think they’re watching a video that celebrates a woman’s inner beauty. But the real message of the video is ‘you’re not as physically unattractive as you think you are, so just go on out there and keep being as physically beautiful as you can be.’”

“I’m going to need some more details.”

“Cool, I took notes. Take this one gal. When she’s looking at the two portraits of herself, she says ‘Chloe’s perception was so, so clearly different. Her picture looked like somebody I thought I would want to talk to and be friends with … like a happy, light, much younger, much brighter person.’

“So if I follow her logic, she is more inclined to ‘talk to’ and ‘be friends with’ someone who appears ‘much younger, much brighter.’ Wow. She’s not just judging the book by its cover. She’s taking age into account, too.

“Now, I’m the first to admit that it’s possible that I twisted the meaning of her words in my typically cynical way. So I watched the video again and took more notes. The blond in the turtle neck says, and I quote: ‘I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children. It impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.’

“Your ‘natural beauty’ affects ‘how we treat our children’? Paging Steve Buscemi, Child Protective Services on line one.

“Look, this thing was a setup from the start. All of the women in it were physically attractive. The artist was in on the joke, and the piece was produced and edited explicitly to tweak our tear glands. What amazes me is that millions of people fell for it.”

“So what lessons can we learn from this experience?”

“Good question. First, gimmicks sell. As manipulative as it was, the premise of the ‘unbiased’ forensic artist was brilliant. Second, amateur-looking video is hot—even slick, expensive ‘amateur’ videos like this one. It makes the viewer feel closer to the action. And third … perception is reality.”

Friday, April 12, 2013

West Side Storycide

"The whole time? I was
wearing this rug
the whole time? I did
not see that coming."
Judging from the cards and letters we’ve received this week (Box 3-5-0, Boston Mass, 0hh-2-1-3-foour), you guys want more details on how to end your own nonfiction stories. Life doesn’t tie up loose ends Ellery Queen-style. No, that’s your job. But we’re going to help you mugs with a new series we call “assisted storycide.”

When inspiration shakes us by the lapels, we’ll post a case story featuring a specific type of ending—happy, sad, surprise, Phillips head, whatever—and then offer advice based on that story. Today’s lesson: “Leave them laughing.”

There’s nothing funny about people jumping in front of trains to end their tormented lives … usually. So when you play suicide for laughs, you should employ a somber tone. We opted for film noir for this story …

Strangeness on a Train

Megan and I were on the 7 a.m. Acela bound for New York when the engineer stomped on the brakes like they owed him money. We were miles from the next station … and just inches away from caboose-ing the 6:30 a.m. Northeast Regional.

From my window, I could see dozens of young commuters stepping off the train, sporting hand-tailored Zegnas and thousand-mile stares. I had to chuckle as these apprentices of the universe shuffled toward us, squinting like mole people in the bright sunlight. It looked like career day at Zombie U.

Minutes later, the dazed passengers from that train—there were over 100 of them—crammed into ours. We were packed tighter than a Japanese subway car, but our new guests stayed mum. Then this short gal with a blond pageboy starts sobbing hysterically about some mooch who mistimed his suicide leap. He got the job done but left a grisly vista for those seated on the left.

With the seal busted, some know-it-all started gabbing about the “protocol for such situations,” which included yellow-vested conductors barking through bull horns, a neatly choreographed “disembarkation” routine, and oddly enough, the distribution of free snack packs. The things you learn on the way to the Big City.

On the Acela back to DC that evening, we met a surprising number of people who had started their day on the Kevorkian Express. A productive day in the city and a few cold ones had knocked the zombie out of them and loosened the screws at the back of their tongues. They were dishing the gruesome details of the morning’s entertainment, and we were lapping it up with ladles.

But just as they were getting to the good part, there was crash that would have startled Buddy Rich and the train made an unscheduled jump on the tracks. Rather than die down, the crash got louder as it rumbled from the cow-catcher to the middle of the car behind us. I was hoping that the crackling thunder below us was a mangled Pathmark shopping cart, but the veterans among us knew better—another Choo Choo Charlie had taken the A train to the Promised Land.

As the train came to a stop, everyone froze. It was as quiet as a speakeasy just before the doors get kicked in. Then, before the conductor could grab his bull horn, two of the Ghost Train frequent flyers looked at each other and shouted, “Free Snack Packs!!”

And they were right.

The lessons:

“Begin with the end in mind.” Any good story goes through unexpected permutations as it’s being developed, which is a natural and good thing. But one thing should remain constant – the ending. As Yogi Berra wisely said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”

Foreshadowing – It’s important to offer smalls references in the body of the story to the element(s) that are crucial to the end—the “free snack packs,” in this case.

Careful foreshadowing – It’s also risky. The foreshadowing has to be done in a way that does not blow the joke. In this case, we said “free snack packs” twice. But if we had gotten just a twinkle more than a wistful smile from our audience, the ending would have been shot.

Brevity is the soul of wit – The two most important elements of any story are the beginning and the end. The closer together you put these two critical elements, the better your story will be. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Start as close to the end as possible.”

When you’re done, you’re done. Denouements are for novelists and overachievers. When you made your point, stop talking.

Stay stoic, my friend. If the story you’re telling gets the laughs you expect (or any that you’re not expecting), do not laugh. Or, as Mark Twain advised, “The teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”

Thursday, April 4, 2013

They don’t call it the climax for nothing: How to satisfy your audience with a powerful ending

"Stop your worrying. I talked
to Chase and he said there
is no chance in hell that
they would use that
ridiculous scene to end th--"
As with rock concerts, fireworks displays, and full-body massages, you can’t have a great story without a great ending–or grand finale as the French would say, which oddly enough means “1,000 curtain-rod end-pieces” (origin unknown).

Think of the climax as your gift to the audience for all they’ve endured to get to the end of the story—whether plowing through page after page of Stephen King’s description of the hedge maze in The Shining, or simply maintaining your expectant smile and raised eyebrows as your roommate tells you anew about last night’s date.

They’ve done their part, so you’ve got to do yours. But how? Here are two resources that should prove helpful.

The first is a well thought out tutorial by Ylva Publishing—“Publisher of lesbian fiction and women’s literature” (rawr). The post, entitled “Satisfying endings,” skillfully guides the reader from the climax—“the highest point of tension and action,” to the denouement, another French word which, roughly translated, means, “Thanks. I’ll call you.”

It’s worth a read … and maybe even a cigarette.

But the most instructive tutorial on the importance of a good ending is found here—a video of the 2010 Disclosure Conference at the National Press Club. It’s long (an hour and change), but the stories are riveting. And the endings are even better.

I can state with certainty that you will never encounter worse endings than these, which is amazing because these stories are the eye-witness accounts of aliens hovering over nuclear missile silos and deactivating the nukes, and they’re being told by the former Air Force officers who commanded those missile silos!

In their defense, these guys were probably as surprised that they were speaking at a national news briefing as they were about their close encounters with aliens. And possibly even more frightened by it. But even cutting them that slack, these are without a doubt the most horrendous endings on some of the most amazing stories of all time.

Take the time to watch video. Study each ending closely. And then do the opposite when it’s your turn to tell a story.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Down and Dirty Harry: Three lessons that will help you tell the hard truths

"Tell me about that 120 lb.
woman one more time.
Go ahead. Make my day."
I used to defend drinking and driving for a living.

I know what you’re thinking. Did he really just say that he defended drinking and driving for a living? Well, to tell you the truth in all the excitement I used to ask that question a lot myself. But seeing that the drunk-driving arrest limit is .08 BAC and that a 120-lb. woman can drink two glasses of wine over a two-hour period without exceeding that limit, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: have you ever had a drink before driving? Well, have you … punk?

I hardly ever went full-Clint Eastwood when defending the legality of drinking a beer at a ballgame. But I did bring up the 120-lb. woman … ad nauseum. Because it is indeed a US DOT-certified fact that this proverbial 120-lb. woman could drink two six-ounce glasses of wine over a two-hour period and still not exceed the drunk driving arrest threshold. But it is also a fact that a 170-lb. man could drink more than four beers before he blew his way into a jail cell. And “more than four beers” sounds a lot worse than “a couple of glasses of wine.”

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering, “Why did he bring this up now? We were just starting to get along, and now ... this.” Four reasons. Well, one reason and three lessons.

The reason: I want to show you how to deal with controversial issues so you can become a better communicator.

The lessons:

When conveying controversial, data-heavy information, wrap it in a vignette that people can relate to. People can see a 120-lb. woman having two glasses of wine at a restaurant, and the image doesn’t comport with their reflexive notion of a drunk driver. Mental dissonance like this often forces people to open the hood and have a quick look at their preconceived notions. Once they do, you’ve got yourself a conversation.

Tell and retell that vignette. You cannot overshare good information. But you have to try.

Passionately defend what you believe in. Or change jobs. For every organization with a quest, there is another organization opposed to it. And unless you’re shilling for deviants like NAMBLA (look it up), you have an obligation to develop compelling stories and convey them in the most creative ways you can to try to achieve your organization’s goals. If you’re just not that into it, find another job … like I did.