Small but essential tweak for any story or persuasive copy: SPECIFICITY

The actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, a Black man with, in this picture, dreadlocks smiles out from a car

Standing in the kitchen one morning, I keep looking at the microwave to read the time. I really should be getting on with my work… I’ve done all the dishes. I’ve even done some prep for my lunch. I didn’t NEED to do either of these things when I did. I was just trying to find a legitimate excuse to stay in the kitchen, so I can keep listening to the radio.

The actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, a Black man with, in this picture, dreadlocks smiles out from a car

The radio is tuned to CBC Radio 1 — Canada’s public broadcasters’ speech channel. The show is Q, the culture show, where Tom Power interviews bands, writers and — as he is now — movie directors. I have a weird relationship with movies; I don’t actually watch them all that often. In the somewhat scant time I have for TV, I tend to err towards shows. But i LOVE learning about movies. I watch all the trailers. I read the reviews. I’ll even do deep dive Wikipedia-ing on films I’ll never watch.

Right now, Tom is chatting to Reinaldo Marcus Green, the director of King Richard (which I didn’t see, but watched the trailer and read about), who is talking about his new film, Bob Marley: One Love. I enjoy the music of Bob Marley; I listened to it a lot when I was seventeen and my then-boyfriend gave me a tape with Bob on one side and Otis Redding on the other. But I haven’t been especially drawn to seeing the movie… until I hear Renaldo Marcus Green talking about it.

He talks about how we tend to know Bob as this legend, this T-shirt picture or poster, but that the actual Bob Marley was so much more. An incredibly hard worker. A man who had some demons. Someone who enjoyed the fame he got maybe a little more than he’d like to admit. But ultimately, a man who was really spiritual, and believed in working to make life better for the people in his country. Then he starts talking about the actor who’s playing Bob, Kingsley Ben-Adir (aka Basketball Ken, who I loved in the TV show High Fidelity, and who I read about (but didn’t see) in the movie One Night In Miami) — which is when I go and grab my pen.

Before he got the role, Kingsley couldn’t sing, couldn’t play guitar, and couldn’t speak Patois — neither could Reinaldo so, on set, he was having to give all of his notes in English. But the point where I suddenly need to write down what he says is when he’s talking about all the little “Bob-isms” that Kingsley had to learn. One of them was skipping a step when he went up stairs. Tom says, “I love that!” and Reinaldo replies with a quote that I write down, because I know I want to share it with you:

“When you get super-specific, it becomes more universal. People lean into it.”

So often in my work, I see people afraid to mention specifics in keynote language or sales copy because they worry it’ll alienate anyone who can’t relate to that particular example. But by being vague, you relate to NO ONE. Here are three reasons why being specific is essential in storytelling — whether that’s a straight up story-story, or just telling little theoretical stories about the person you’re talking to.

(1) It keeps your audience engaged

Even if we can’t relate to your particular thing, by naming it, you allow us to switch it to another in our minds. So if, for example, you say,

“You know when you’re sitting there in the morning, eating your Coco Pops…”

…even if I don’t eat Coco Pops for breakfast, in my head I’ll be like, Well, almond butter on toast, but ok, yes?

Whereas if you say,

“You know when you’re sitting there in the morning, eating your breakfast…”

…there is somehow a bigger mental leap in my mind. I have to think, Ok, breakfast. What do I have for breakfast again? Almond butter on toast. Ok, yes?

It takes longer, which means you’re already likely to have lost me as an audience member.

(2) It’s funny!

In Jeff Harry’s INCREDIBLE story* that he told at [the online, early pandemic version of] my live storytelling show, he starts off being absolutely hilarious, talking about trying to be cool at school when he was 12 years old. In the story, he mentions the “cool outfit” he bought: Z Cavaricci Jeans and a Jarboe Shirt. Unlike Jeff, I grew up in the UK where we didn’t have those brands. But there’s something about the specificity of his naming the labels that still makes it funny!

(3) It RESONATES

If you want to connect with your audience, the absolute BEST thing you can do is describe their situation in such a way that makes them feel like,

“Hang on — are you in my HOUSE????? Did you bug my recent therapy session?????”

When you do this, it:

  • gives you credibility (“I get it and I get you. I know this problem intimately so I’m likely to be able to solve it”)
  • shows them what you’re suggesting is for THEM and not for everyone
  • When you’re describing the pain points/problem they have that you can help solve, it tells them, “I’m not going to shame you for having this problem”
  • MOST importantly, tells them the four most powerful words in the English language: YOU ARE NOT ALONE

Three people hugging with the words YOU ARE NOT ALONE overlaid

The best way to do aaaaaallllll of those things? Get SUPER-specific.

Instead of saying,

“You want to make more sales”

say

“You worry that if you don’t earn more this year, you’re going to have to give up your home and move your whole family into a studio apartment the size of your current kitchen table.”

Instead of asking,

“Do you feel stuck?”

asking

“Do you feel like, every time you think about the future, it’s like a whole hive of bees got emptied into your brain and you can’t think past it? Do you get panicky, and pick up your phone to go on Instagram, just to not have to think about your life?”

Instead of saying,

“I stood at the party awkwardly”

say

“I stood in the corner of the party, holding an empty wine glass in my sweaty hand. I tried to make my face look happy and relaxed, like I wasn’t embarrassed to be alone and instead was just really chill and a bit mysterious.”

When you get super-specific, it becomes more universal. People lean into it.

So get specific, and let them lean!

Thanks so much for reading. If you know anyone who’s working on a keynote, some sales copy or just working on writing stories, pass this along to them by pressing one of the buttons below. And if you want some help getting this specificity into your keynotes or presentations, — or if you work at an organization that wants to get better at Storytelling and [Ethically] Persuasive Communication, give me a shout! Book in a free, no obligation call, here: 

Do you have an example you love of someone being specific in a way that resonated with you? Let me know in the comments below!

You rule!

xx (Yes Yes) Marsha

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