Despite what you learned in your high school writing classes, the most powerful stories aren’t necessarily the most richly detailed. Great stories leave space for the audience in two ways.
One is allowing people to put the pieces together for themselves. “The audience actually wants to work for their meal,” says Andrew Stanton, a Pixar director and screenwriter, in his 2012 TED talk “The Clues to a Great Story.” “They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal. We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.” Stanton’s observation finds support in academic literature. For example, a study that offered readers the opportunity to experience three different stories found that the one that forced them to put the story together for themselves was seen
as most interesting of the three.
Because we fill in missing details with what is familiar to us, leaving
some specific details out of your story creates an empty space for your readers to insert their own experience—what is known and familiar to them. When Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body washed ashore on the Greek island of Kos on September 2, 2015, after his family fled the Syrian conflict, his image was captured by a photojournalist. The image and story went viral, and donations to support the Syrian refugees spiked. Why did his image capture the world’s imagination? It may have been his universality. In his simple red T-shirt and blue shorts, with his face obscured and the absence of identifying details—we couldn’t see his face, and his clothes were so simple that we might see them on any child—it was possible for us to imagine
a child we loved in his place.
Detail is important, however, when you’re working to use the power of storytelling to help people look at something in a fresh light. Adding specific, visual details about a character or situation where your readers may have bias, prejudice, or a set of assumptions helps get them to see things in a new way. When you’re telling stories about social issues, the social forces shaping that problem should be the context of your story—a problem to overcome or a setting that shapes the decisions of the protagonist. The recently deceased chef, writer, and television journalist Anthony Bourdain was a master of this device. In his CNN show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, which was ostensibly about food and travel, he went on quests to find delicious dishes and unique cultures that most people could only imagine, and uncovered injustice, poverty, conflict, and triumph along the way.
How to apply this insight:
- Are you telling stories with a beginning, middle, and end, or simply sharing messages?
- What new insights will your audiences gain from hearing these stories?
- Are your stories interesting enough in their own right to merit a listen—even if the listener isn’t passionate about your issue?
- And are you using the empty and full spaces of your stories to help people gain new insights on topics and issues they assume they know well?
If you’re finding that your communications strategies aren’t working, consider this: People fail to act not because they do not have enough information, but because they don’t care or they don’t know what to do. If you start with this perspective as the foundation for