Imagery in nonprofit storytelling

Picture the last time you watched a football game.  Think about a big hit that someone took to the head, whether it was a smashing tackle or someone getting upended and landing on his head.

What did you, as a spectator do?

Chances are pretty good that you cringed.  More specifically, you likely closed your eyes, turned your head from the screen, lifted your shoulders, and grimaced as if you were in pain.

And you were in pain, even though you were not in pain.  Your brain created the pain for you.  So you averted and closed off your gaze, so you wouldn’t feel any more of it.  You lifted your shoulders so as to protect your own neck.

Or, as a master of the written word put it:

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“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

There is a robust debate ongoing as to whether this happening because of so-called mirror neurons or as a result of human empathy.  A good reflection on this debate is available here.   

However you come out on this debate, suffice it to say that seeing something happen to someone else can trigger the same feeling in ourselves.  But does it translate to the written word?

Absolutely.  Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words may have simultaneously underestimated the worth of both the right picture and the right words.

Consider Hemingway’s famous challenge to write a six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”  I’ve lost a child and those six words remind me vividly and painfully of a nursery.  We painted it to look like the blue of the sky, with a bright yellow sun.  And while I, with my complete lack of art skill, resigned myself to painting clouds and blades of grass (the ugly ones that didn’t taper properly at the top), my wife painted ladybugs and flowers and butterflies to welcome our child.

But the crib remained empty.  And while we did end up having two wonderful children, we moved from that house and used a different crib.

My point here is that words can create images.  Hopefully, you pictured our nursery a little bit above.  I used (or rather, tried to use) some of the same techniques you would see in a movie:

  • Setting the stage: a nursery.
  • Using colors to evoke an image.  Without using the Pantone or paint chip name, you have in your mind the picture of the sky and of the color or the sun.
  • Showing action: it isn’t just a static room; now it’s being painted.
  • Zooming in: on blades of grass.
  • Panning around to capture detail.

Chances are you are picturing it entirely differently from how it was (heck, because of the vagaries of memory, so probably am I).  That doesn’t matter as much as look as you are seeing a scene.

Studies of the brain find that when we read a story written this way, our brain processes it as if it is a visual and motor experience. 

And we can invite people to trigger imagery.  Good verbs like “imagine,” “remember,” and “picture in your mind” give a person the trigger to help them start to think in this way.  You still have to capture them with story and detail, but you are starting well.

Imagery in nonprofit storytelling

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