A colorful libation takes center stage in a photograph in a bar.
A lovely libation surrounded by delicious details. Photo by Al Rendon, used by permission.
gary s. whitford

Of all the low-down sneaky tricks a writer uses to communicate well and look cool, environmental detail is my favorite.

Where are you right now? I’m going to imagine you reading The Rivard Report on an iPad at Olmos Perk, your back snuggled deep into a comfortable leather chair, a steaming latte on the table next to you topped with Iris’s fancy fleur. The bakery case is lit, there’s a short line at the register with a cyclist, a dad and his four-year-old daughter, a Rez Abbasi trio is playing overhead, two of the four carrels are occupied with people working on laptops …

That’s my fantasy; you know the reality. Wherever you are, look around. Notice the color of the walls, assess the quality of light in the room. Silently name your companions, probably also intent on their own lit screens. Are there animals? Is there a window you can look out of – how’s the weather out there? The room is furnished, decorated with pictures on the walls, small tchotchkes and there are magazines or books or pillows – you are surrounded with enough detail to color a whole novel.

Collect and Employ

In the 1995 film Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey plays Roger “Verbal” Kint, a small-time con man who is being interrogated. The film follows Kint’s convoluted story. SPOILER ALERT: if, after waiting 17 years to see this film you intend to watch it, stop reading here.

I’m going to recount the end. The film is dramatic, intense, resulting in the destruction of a gangster’s yacht. As told by Kint, all of the guilty parties die in the accident and he is found innocent of any wrongdoing by the detective.

Kint is released, the camera stays in the interrogation room, and we find out that he’s been lying the whole time. We see bits and pieces of the stories – a name here, a detail there – in things posted on the bulletin board, names of computers and other equipment. It becomes obvious that Kint relied heavily on the details in his immediate environment to embellish and lend credibility to a total fabrication that spanned days of nefarious activity spread throughout the Los Angeles metroplex. As he makes his escape, we learn that Roger Kint is also fake – Kevin Spacey is actually Keyser Söze, the legendary crime lord sought by authorities.

Open Your Eyes

That’s the trick – as you peruse your environment, or parse your memory of a particular event, collect details that will enhance your story and lend credence to your objective.

A colorful libation takes center stage in a photograph in a bar.
A lovely libation surrounded by delicious details. Photo by Al Rendon, used with permission.

This is an Al Rendon photograph of a hand-crafted libation at Rosario’s Cafe y Cantina. Let’s peruse this environment together, and spot worthy details. Of immediate interest is the young woman on the left, telling a marvelous story to her friend, using her hands to help describe the topic of her sentence. Candles in tall pink glasses punctuate the scene. We can see hints of two empty chairs, and another pair leaning in the doorway, talking.

Open Your Heart

All of these details are described with words. As we select details to use in our story, we match them to the feeling we are trying to express, using detail to give substance and weight to the objective our communication intends to accomplish. In our photograph, for example, someone suggesting a girl’s night out might mention the lovely pink candles to convey a sense of passion and daring, or she might describe the bar’s creative design and signature cocktails to emphasize the night’s appreciation of culture.

Get Down to Business

Our daily stream of  communications would seem to discourage story – we’re writing emails to be as succinct as possible, deliver the why and the what quick and clear. It does not take a paragraph to give our message color, not one extra sentence is required. Simply choose strong adjectives and even stronger adverbs. Instead of “our cocktail delivers two shots” we could write, “cool crème and sweet grenadine gently pull premium vodka sip after sip toward an excellent evening.”

You probably sell widgets or professional services, but the principle is the same – describe the product with evocative detail, and your message will resonate all the way to the bank.

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, providing effective communications for business and non-profit development. You can find Extraordinary Words on Facebook, LinkedIn and its website. You can read more of gary’s writing on his personal blog and by searching The Rivard Report for “Every Word Counts.”

gary s. whitford

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is a partner in Extraordinary Words, providing clear, compelling content for business and non-profit communications. gary has lived in San Antonio for 2/3 of his...