Storytellers, who can mesmerize an audience, all have one vital skill: the ability to describe. They can access their memory and vividly paint in accurate words, transporting the listener to another place, time, and emotion.
What is description?
I can look out a train window and describe what I see: Tall green trees, a parking lot with used cars, two redbrick factories sprayed with graffiti. Listeners will see what I saw, but they won’t feel what I felt – and that is the difference between describing a scene versus transporting your audience.
To create a story in our listeners’ minds, we have to use material that we learned to know–not that we have merely seen.
If you want the audience to feel what you felt, you can’t stand outside that which you are describing. You have to enter into it and release the spirit of its arrangement. You describe HOW you see. An experience that is uniquely yours based on the knowledge of your life lived so far. You transport audiences when you describe with the vocabulary of your life. You breathe life into characters, places, and situations by letting them seep into your consciousness.
When a description is so uniquely yours, it has the potential to become a universal truth. I find this truth to be weirdly contradictory and yet, when I experience any kind of masterpiece, the more original the artist’s “signature“ is, the more I am touched by its meaning. Description that transports audiences through the sheer power of its originality is a skill. And with all skills, the more toil and trial you invest into practice, the more you shall indeed reap! Here are three tips to improve your description expertise:
Keep a journal
Begin a daily practice of conscious observation. Just ten minutes a day will make a difference! Become a keen observer of the often overlooked, mundane details that make scenes come alive. If you struggle now to paint in words, you will succeed later in telling a compelling story. It’s easier to access your memory when you write soon after the fact. Your memory may draw a blank, when you ask it to recall the minute details of your first trip to England – 15 years ago.
Use metaphors and similes
Metaphors and similes help the listener & reader understand a subject by comparing it to something else that we know. The writer Marcel Proust was a master of these two rhetorical devices. The following excerpt from In Search of Lost Time – „The Hawthorn Hedge“ is rich with metaphors and smiles.
My eyes followed up the slope which, outside the hedge, rose steeply to the fields, a poppy that had strayed and been lost by its fellows, or a few cornflowers that had fallen lazily behind, and decorated the ground here and there with their flowers like the border of a tapestry, in which may be seen at intervals hints of the rustic theme which appears triumphant in the panel itself; infrequent still, spaced apart as the scattered houses which warn us that we are approaching a village, they betokened to me the vast expanse of waving corn beneath the fleecy clouds, and the sight of a single poppy hoisting upon its slender rigging and holding against the breeze its scarlet ensign, over the buoy of rich black earth from which it sprang, made my heart beat as does a wayfarer’s when he perceives, upon some low-lying ground, an old and broken boat which is being caulked and made seaworthy, and cries out, although he has not yet caught sight of it, “The Sea!”
*Source: Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time – excerpt „The Hawthorn Hedge“.
The problem with cliches, set phrases, catch-phrases, buzzwords, and idioms is that these descriptions merely graze the surface. Alain de Botton in “How Proust Can Change Your Life” * gives an insightful explanation on cliches:
(Writer friend asks Marcel Proust for comments on his new manuscript and Proust replies)
… There are some big landscapes in your novel,’ explained Proust, treading delicately, ‘but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality. It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.
We may ask why Proust objected to phrases that had been used too often. After all, doesn’t the moon shine discreetly? Don’t sunsets look as if they were on fire? Aren’t cliches just good ideas that have proved rightly popular?
It’s about YOUR experience, not someone else’s
The problem with cliches is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or a moon, we will end believing that this is the last rather than the first word to be said on this subject. Cliches are detrimental in so far as they merely graze the surface of our true experience.
And this matters because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel. How we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.
Dyane Neiman is the Moving Speaker. She helps business professionals at all levels, who are challenged to speak in public, in English. She always encourages people to get better at speaking in public, by SPEAKING IN PUBLIC! Get in touch at email@example.com
Tags: Storytelling: The Power of Description, storytelling, writing tips, storytelling tips, storytelling structure.