As a student of business writing, I don’t turn to obituaries for inspiration (probably a good thing).
The typical obit adheres to a formula that goes something like this:
- He or she passed away
- Source of fame
- Key achievements
- Surviving family
There’s a reason that newspapers assign the “obit beat” to newly hired college grads.
Yet, thanks to the serendipitous nature of social media, I came across The Economist’s obituary on Phil Sayer.
I hadn’t heard of Phil Sayer before, and unless you live in London, it’s unlikely you know the name either.
Like any good personality profile the obituary allows the reader to get to know Phil Sayer. The storytelling causes the reader to conclude that if there were a hall of fame for voices, Mr. Sayer’s bust would be next to James Earl Jones and Michael Buffer.
When I read something that causes a holy-&%$#& moment, I’m keen to understand the construction of the copy, flow and choice of words. Are there lessons to be mined for my own writing and perhaps for our storytelling workshop curriculum?
With this in mind, I took a shot at reverse-engineering the construction of the Phil Sayer story which you’ll see in the following graphic:
It turns out that the conventional format for crafting an obit isn’t the problem. With the exception of the lead, The Economist story on Phil Sayer’s life essentially follows the same structure as the one I ridiculed. It’s what the journalist does with the structure.
Anecdotes interspersed through the piece are a big part of bringing out Sayer’s humanity:
“Down in London one day, he stood as close as he dared to perfect strangers on the Tube and parroted his own announcements, hoping they would recognise him. Disappointingly, they didn’t.”
But it is the actual writing — the gift for narrative, the clever turn of a phrase, the choice of words — that makes The Economist obituary podium-worthy.
I’ve captured some of my favorite examples:
- TRAVELLERS are creatures caught between two worlds. They are neither where they anticipate, nor where they were, but on a featureless white concourse or grey station platform, considering the void.
- When he announced that the 17.36 for Hampton Court, calling at Vauxhall, Clapham Junction, Earlsfield, Wimbledon, Raynes Park, New Malden, Berrylands, Surbiton, Thames Ditton and Hampton Court, was standing at Platform 6, you knew it could not possibly be anywhere else, or bound for any other place.
- Those who listened to him daily detected human touches: his succulent enthusiasm for the trolley service of drinks and light refreshments that would be available on this train, as if he was already unwrapping a tuna sandwich; his palpable excitement at the words “London Midland” or “Cross Country,” his interesting hesitation, when announcing the Bournemouth service, between “Brockenhurst” and “Sway,” as though he doubted for a moment whether tiny Sway existed.
- In fact Mr Sayer was a nice, funny, ordinary chap, brought up in Liverpool and living in Bolton. Adjectives like “nice” and “funny” and “ordinary” don’t exactly get the heart racing. Yet in this frame, they collectively tell the base story of Mr. Sayer.
- Station cognoscenti, despite his perfect, classless diction, could still detect the northerner in him.
- Much of his career was spent on local and BBC radio in Manchester, where he cut ribbons at primary schools and played darts in street-corner pubs, absorbing the life and chatter of the place.
The writing is “exquisite.”
While we mere mortals can only aspire to this type of narrative, I’m still taking away a few reminders and lessons on business writing.
Conversational language trumps the stiff stuff.
Stringing together the simplest of adjectives — Mr. Sayer was a nice, funny, ordinary chap — can create a certain cadence pleasing to the eye (ear?).
Details bring realness to the story.
Everyone loves levity (and most adore alliteration).
And strive to tease out the stories within a story.
The writing gold is always there. You just need to dig it out.