The Stories We Tell

One of the things we try to do here at W5 is tell stories. Data only gets you so far without the story behind it. Stories add context, depth, and richness. I’ve been addicted to stories as long as I can remember since picking up comic books in the 1970s.

One incredible story book are The New York Times obituary pages. They never just give you the facts, but instead dive deep into people’s lives and highlight elements that go far beyond dates and the basics.

Recently, Ron Popeil passed away. While his life was interesting, there was a detail in his obituary that jumped out at me:

His father, Samuel Popeil, was the inventor of the Chop-O-Matic and several other well-known items, and as a teenager Ron began selling his father’s inventions at a Walgreen’s store in Chicago.

His described his relationship with his father, who died in 1984, as all business. In 1974, Samuel’s second wife, Eloise, was convicted of attempting to hire two men to murder him. After serving 19 months of her sentence, the couple later remarried.

Instead of just being a brief remembrance of his life, you start to peel back the layers and wonder about the other people in his life. In two sentences the author shared the most intriguing and interesting detail in the entire piece.

Another obituary that has stuck with me years later is Manfred Gans who escaped Nazi Germany and then went back with U.S. forces to his village to find his parents. His obituary reads like a movie:

In March 1945, he helped free his hometown, the ancient walled city of Borken, where he had been born on April 27, 1922. His house, on the outskirts of town, had been used as a Nazi headquarters; the wine cellar was a torture chamber. His parents, Moritz and Else Fraenkel Gans, had been taken away.

Mr. Gans was determined to find them, though he had no idea if they had survived. He asked his superior officers to grant him a leave. They gave him a jeep and a driver, and the two embarked on a journey that would take them across hundreds of miles of German-held territory.

As researchers, that’s our job― to listen for the elements that aren’t obvious.

What are people really saying, what’s between the lines of what they’re not saying? When are they lying or stretching the truth? When are they obfuscating?

So often I’ll be moderating a focus group and by listening and observing can tell the respondents aren’t reporting what they actually think, feel, and do. Uncovering the truth often involves looking for those unspoken elements or grabbing onto details they find less meaningful. It is in those truths that we often uncover the unexpected, but meaningful, stories that can drive change.  

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