Here’s what Seth had to say:
If you watch a well-directed film with the sound turned off, you’ll get a lot out of it….
There are a few places where all that matters is the words. Where the force of logic is sufficient to change the moment.
The rest of the time, which is almost all the time, the real issues are trust, status, culture, pheromones, peer pressure, urgency and the energy in the room.
In fact, Seth’s post echoes the response Mark Baker wrote to my piece:
It isn’t the choice of individual words. It is the juxtaposition of words that achieves the effect. The art is not in the selection but in the arrangement, not in the vocabulary but in the story.
Both Seth and Mark know their stuff. So, did they take me to school? Do I feel chastised? Ready to write a retraction?
Stories all the way down
I can’t deny the importance of storytelling in explaining (in other words, in technical communication), in persuading (marketing), and in connecting people together.
In another place Mark uses the metaphor of a stack of turtles: the stack, in Mark’s words, “is stories at the bottom, in the middle, and at the top. It is stories, like turtles, all the way down.”
But, as I’ve argued before, a story isn’t a story without data — in other words, without information.
Nor can a story be effective without the right words. To tell a good story, I need words that work for my audience: enabling them to paint a mental picture and evoking the right emotional responses.
If a writer’s finished product is the story — like a baker’s finished product is the cake — then data and words are butter and flour: ingredients without which the story is drab and flat.
Without the words
I’ve never watched a film with the sound off. Never thought of it until Seth brought it up. But I can tell you a story….
The summer after my junior year in high school, a group of us students spent two weeks touring Germany. One night, looking for something to do, a few of us found a movie theater that was playing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (This was back when a theater would play just one movie.)
I hadn’t seen 2001 before. But I assumed it would be in English, with German subtitles. I was wrong. When the movie started and I realized it had simply been dubbed into German, I thought “Wow, this is going to go right over my head.”
I was in for a surprise, though, and it’s one Seth would’ve predicted. Armed with only a third-year knowledge of German, I could follow along. It helped, of course, that 2001 is highly visual and doesn’t rely too much on dialog. So, in Seth’s words I “got a lot out of it” — until the last part, of course, which is hard to understand no matter what languages you know.
Yet even then, words mattered. In the English version of 2001, when HAL begins to shut down, he intones I’m afraid, Dave. I’m afraid. The scene is affecting. But in German it’s downright overpowering: Ich habe Angst, Dave. Ich habe Angst. Forty-plus years later I still feel chills when I recall that scene.
When I recall those words.
2001 is a great story. A lot of different ingredients go into making it great. But don’t discount the power of those words.
What do you say? Do you think it makes sense to talk about story without also talking about data and words? Do you see other ingredients coming into play as well?
HAL image by Grafiker61 via Wikimedia Commons