• Stephen

The importance of narrative

This is the text of a presentation I delivered recently, unfortunately you don't get the added Precision bass and Telecaster goodness - sorry!

I would like to tell you a story about a one-eyed boy who changed the world.  Clarence Leonidas Fender was born on the 10th of August 1909 near Anaheim, California.  Less than fifty years later he would change the world.

Leo, as he was known, was a farmer’s son.  When he was seven, he lost an eye in an accident whilst cleaning a trailer although for the rest of his life few people ever knew he wore a glass eye.  After high school he studied accounting at college, going on to work as an accountant for the California Highways Department. During this period he had been dabbling in radio repairs and given the similarities between radios and amplifiers, he was approached to build a public address system for a local band. He ended up building 6 of them.

In 1938 he started his own radio repair business and local musicians increasingly called on him to repair or build amplifiers for them.  During World War 2 he formed an association with Clayton ‘Doc’ Kauffman, and the two of them started working on a variety of guitar designs.

In post-war America, the big bands were falling out of favour with smaller, cheaper bands taking their place, but there was a problem - guitarists struggled to be heard over the noise of drums or brass instruments.  Amplification helped a little but too much amplification on a hollow-bodied guitar led to cacophonous feedback.

In 1950 the Fender guitar company launched the Telecaster -  a simple solid bodied guitar. The world changed. Now the guitarist could be heard without feedback, they could play single note melodies and each note could be heard clearly.

A year later Fender introduced the Precision bass.  Again solid bodied and fretted, the bass player could at last compete with the drummer and he no longer had to haul his huge bass fiddle around.  Bass and amplifier would go in the trunk of a car.

Two years, two instruments.  In 1954 Fender released the Stratocaster, the instrument that has become the synonymous with the electric guitar.

Without Leo Fender, without the Telecaster and without the Precision bass, there would arguably have been no rock and roll, no Sixties psychedelia, no Glam rock, no hard rock, no metal.  Without the precision bass holding down the bottom end we wouldn’t have had Stax, Atlantic or the Motown sound all of which relied on the anchor of a solid bass line.

Other companies were having similar ideas but it was Leo Fender along with Doc Kauffman and George Fullerton who first put the power to be heard into the hands of guitarists and bass players. These instruments are still produced with few substantial changes, nearly 70 years after their launch.

Fender’s companies, with or without him, would go on to add numerous models to their line up and to challenge and inspire players and their competition, but it was those two simple guitars that were the crucial tipping point for 20th Century music.

While I am quite happy to wax lyrical about a subject I am passionate about, that’s not the point.  The piece I have just read you is slightly less than 500 words. It took me about three minutes to read, and had you read it for yourselves, it would probably have taken less.

What is important here is the amount of information transmitted - forgive me I’m going to get a little boring here but it is all in a good cause (I hope!) You have just learned

  • Who Leo Fender was

  • Where he was born

  • When he was born

  • That this man was significant

  • Something about his background and his socio-economic class

  • His education

  • His aspirations before opening his radio shop

  • Key moments in his life

  • Key collaborators

  • Motivation to design the solid bodied guitar

  • The changing nature of popular entertainment post World War 2

  • Problems faced by musicians in the new musical landscape

  • What he designed and produced

  • Names of the products

  • Dates they were released which allows you to chronologically place their importance.

  • The effect they had on musicians and the music they made

  • The breadth of impact on late Twentieth century music of Leo’s inventions

  • The vast range of musical styles that were dependent on the solid bodied guitar

  • While other designers were working on solid guitars, Leo was the first to launch one commercially and make a success of it.

  • The longevity of the original designs and the essential “rightness” of those designs.

  • Why Leo Fender was significant in the history of popular music.

While conveying all this information is important, and was the purpose of the piece, the narrative is equally relevant.  It is the wrapper that conveys the information you are trying to get across to your audience, it is the ‘spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down’.

I could have presented the bald list of facts I have just read you, they are factually correct, but the problem is that my facts are competing with a whole world of other facts.  How do I ensure that my words, my information, is what you remember?

To fully answer that would require a head-to-head discussion between Graeme and myself, and no doubt several of the people here in this room, but I shall limit myself to the importance of the words and their presentation.

The internet is still primarily a written environment, despite what you might think given the prominence of YouTube et al.  Serious people read - they may watch a short video but they expect to get their information from words.

My goal is not only to find the right words to properly convey the meaning accurately but as importantly to set the context and narrative for those ideas, to give them life.

Narrative, there’s that word again.  Narrative is defined thus:

narrative ˈnarətɪv/ noun 1. a spoken or written account of connected events; a story. "a gripping narrative"

People respond to stories, we’ll skip all the research into that, the continuing existence of Grimm's Fairy tales, of the Bible in all its forms, of Homer’s Odyssey, the Amazon Kindle etc. should tell you that.

A narrative doesn't need to be of epic proportion or length, although that would be a nice little earner for me, but it needs to perform some specific tasks:

  • Engage with the audience

  • Frame the information we are trying to convey

  • Be persistent

Engagement is critical, in this click-happy, impatient world you really do need to grab your audience's attention as quickly as possible.

Framing is important, but less critical than engagement.  It is the box that the gift comes in, the word equivalent of wrapping paper.  It sets the context for the information and on a purely practical level prevents you from delivering nothing more than a list of facts.

Persistence.  I do not mean here that the piece should follow the reader home and come to dominate their lives (‘though I’d count that as a win).  What I do mean is that it should be sufficiently interesting that the reader does not instantly forget what they have just read - we are looking for a pensive reaction, in more prosaic terms we want them to think about what they have just read.

There are a number of ways to do this; making the piece funny can help, being outrageously controversial might do the trick as well.  The dangers with both of these approaches should be clear - too much of either and you risk negating the importance of the message or you offend the reader so quickly that they click away from your piece.  Therefore there has to be balance. It might seem counterintuitive but one could write a piece with some gentle humour in it even for an Undertaker providing the piece is used appropriately.

In-jokes are also a useful lever as it creates a connection with the audience, but (there is always a but) care has to be taken not to alienate any part of your potential readership, unless that is your explicit aim.  Clarity is also vital, if readers struggle to work out what you’re trying to tell them, they will simply look elsewhere for their information.

When talking about writing I quite often refer to ‘tone’. Tone is a crucial component of narrative, and as in music, difficult to explain at times.  It is about pitching the piece at an appropriate level.

Any of you who have ever written a formal tender proposal will remember fondly the stilted language they tend to demand.  Writing a relaxed & colloquial tender may stand out but it would probably rule itself out of consideration.

By the same token, a monotonous 500 word blog intended to interest procurement managers would most likely fall flat on its face, these poor bugger have to read that stuff as part of their day job, don’t rub their noses in it!

In large part setting the narrative is what I do - facts are, in theory at least, incontrovertible and in our connected world relatively straightforward to obtain and check.  The challenge is to present those facts in a way that makes people not only understand what you are telling them, whether that is about a business they may be interested in, or about new regulations or technologies, but to retain their attention and interest while you do it.  Fortunately it seems that long-form writing is far from dead as people search for pieces that either inform them or answer questions for them.

At times finding that narrative is easy, the subject itself suggests the story, other times - not so much…  My wife can attest to me walking away from half finished pieces of work cursing because it’s simply not working.  It may be that a little time and perspective can get me back on the right track, it may be that I have to scrap what I have written and start again from scratch.

Ultimately we all have stories to tell; about ourselves, our lives and our businesses.  My aim is to help those stories to be told.

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