Narrative specificity means avoiding generalizations and using details to make your story come to life. Leave it out, and your words will be hollow and dead, like empty snail shells strewn across the dirt.
It’s not surprising that many writers miss this point, particularly in politics and business. These writers are concerned about getting a point across, so the most natural thing to do in that case is to emphasize the point itself: Our product is terrific, our company means well, our candidate is an honest and trustworthy person.
The problem is that merely making assertions is empty and unconvincing: You need to illustrate the point you want to make with concrete examples, images, details, anecdotes.
As a result, one of the most common things I do when working with clients’ copy is to push them to include more concrete detail. I often ask them to tell me personal stories. I look for unusual and specific customer cases, or unique turning points in the company history, and then I ask for details around that. I ask them about their childhood, and how they got started in this business. I ask them to tell me about the biggest challenge they faced, or (better yet) the worst day they experienced when they were starting their company/building their product. With luck (and patience), you can often draw out a much more compelling narrative in this way.
If you’re not trained as a writer you may not be aware of this, or know how to put together a good, concrete illustration of a point. So it’s not surprising that many people miss this. But what is surprising is that the speechwriters of a major address at a U.S. political convention would overlook this basic point: And that’s exactly what seems to have happened with Melania Trump’s speech last night. Not only does it appear that Melania lifted at least a couple paragraphs from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech, it seems that Melania’s speech never moved far beyond empty statements and platitudes.
“Dressed in snowy white with poofed things at the end of her sleeves, she looked beautiful, and spoke pleasantly enough. But the words that came out of her mouth were empty, meaningless. If she had really paid attention to Michelle’s speech from 2008, what she should have taken from it was a lesson about the power of narrative specificity: Michelle told detailed, intimate stories of her life as a young person and her life as a wife and mother, details that shed light on her life, her personality, the nature of her relationship with her husband.”
I don’t expect this shortcoming will hurt the Trump campaign: Most of the people at the convention are already convinced he is their candidate, and they don’t need an eloquent speech by Melania to firm up their convictions. Likewise, no one outside the convention who isn’t already for Trump is going to have their mind changed by any speech by the candidate’s wife, no matter how eloquent.
Still, it is a squandered moment. Instead of making a moving, memorable speech, Melania gave an address that will be remembered only for its plagiarism and hollowness.
That’s not her fault — that’s the fault of her speechwriters and the organizers of the convention. They should have done better.