‘The sob is in the story. It mustn’t be in the voice.’ So said Antonia Fraser on Radio 4’s Front Row this week. She was speaking of her difficulty in reading aloud the love poem by her late husband, Harold Pinter, with which she concludes her memoir of their life together, Must You Go?
She had been persuaded to read the book for radio, she explained. In the end it took her several attempts to master the neutral voice that concealed her personal feelings and left listeners the room they needed to discover the emotion in the poem for themselves.
I wrote last week about trusting that people will ‘get it’. This is the same. If the story’s strong enough and the writing good enough, no one needs another voice metaphorically holding up cue cards with exclamation marks or sad faces. But it’s a lesson many organisations still have to learn. The temptation to tell the world how innovative or robust or trustworthy or, most laughably, how passionate they are continues to seem irresistible. Yet it invariably sounds like a ham performance which at worst stretches credulity, at best provokes the response: ‘I think I’ll decide that for myself, thank you.’
‘Show, don’t tell’ is one of the first principles of fiction. Storytellers have known from time immemorial that an idea or message revealed has infinitely more power than one baldly stated. For many organisations, business case studies can be a nod in that direction; though even then the fear that people will somehow miss the point can result in the ‘lesson’ being spelt out at the end in bold type.
But the truth is that we learn from stories as naturally as we breathe, whether they hold sobs or laughter, facts or ideas; and we learn best when the author isn’t leaning over our shoulder pointing things out. The stories just need to be told with conviction – passion, if you prefer – for as the American poet Robert Frost said, in a nice corollary to Antonia Fraser’s bon mot: ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’.