'The Focus Group Was Ecstatic': Facts and Feelings in Stories


When I worked as a reporter I often met the classic, garrulous business executive who would "describe" the birth of a product this way: "In grad. school 15 years ago, Sally and I were working on a new design for a carburetor. The fuel efficiency was off the charts but it was too expensive so we used more cost-effective materials, calculated the precise ratio of air to gas" etc.

What's wrong with this brief story? For one thing it's boring, but why? Too many facts and no emotion.

I learned valuable lessons from The Basic Patterns of Plot, written by a journalism professor called Foster-Harris (no first name given). Though the book is out of print, the messages still resonate:

The 'music' of fiction is the... feeling-fact rhythm... [T]he emotional parts are upbeats, the... fact portions downbeats... You can score a piece of competent fictional writing. You will come up with something that reads like this: feeling-fact, feeling-fact, feeling, feeling, feeling, fact, fact, feeling-fact, feeling-fact, feeling-fact, fact, fact. And so on.

How does this apply to business stories, which presumably are non-fiction? Simple: avoid dry recitations of facts alone. Don't be afraid to intersperse your feelings about your product or service, or more importantly, the emotional reactions of your customers in this way: "When we first introduced Product X in June (fact), we hadn't slept for weeks and we were both exhausted and exhilarated (feeling). The customers told us that for the first time in their lives, they could sleep at night (feeling) knowing that their information was secure (fact) because of our impenetrable firewall (fact)." You get the idea.

Take a lesson from Guy de Maupassant, the famous French short story writer. Though he was known as a naturalist who presented the world in all its ugliness, he readily understood the role of passion. He thought the reading public was saying:

• Console me
• Amuse me
• Sadden me
• Move me
• Make me dream
• Make me laugh
• Make me tremble
• Make me cry
• Make me think

Were the consumers in the focus group actually so happy that they looked like the people in the photo above? If so, tell us about it.

Remember: upbeat, downbeat, fact, feeling.


Foster-Harris, The Basic Patterns of Plot. 1959. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, p. 23.

Guy de Maupassant, Pierre et Jean. 2006. Pocket: Paris, p. 16.