Finding the Oooh! moment


If you work hard to put wonderful things into the world, you may wonder at times why people are so reluctant to take advantage of it.

“People talk about how they need help with mental health,” says the founder and CEO of a mental health organisation. “But when we put on free events they don’t come!”

Could better storytelling help?

I think so, and over three hours this week a small group of us worked together at her HQ to look at general storytelling principles, then apply them to specifics.

To begin, we considered a launch event the previous evening. I asked participants if they could remember hearing a story at the launch – any story – and what was their own “Oooh!” moment.

For me, it was when a man told me that something bad had happened in his family and he’d stopped seeing his grandparents.

I can’t help it. I’m human. I wanted to know what had happened: that was my Oooh. (But I’m also relatively well behaved, and restrained myself from asking.)

Back at HQ, everybody else recalled an Oooh moment, and shared it – if somewhat awkwardly, because acknowledging that we felt an Oooh means admitting to being nosy and probably a bit judgemental. But we’re all like that, no?

I reminded participants that I’m a journalist, and therefore nosy and judgemental by training. I have spent many hours listening to stories that were often quite dull. I’ve learned to suppress any outward sign of boredom, and indeed any outward sign of Oooh when that occurs (because it can freak out the person talking, if you suddenly look interested).

Inwardly, when a journalist gets an Oooh moment, the heart sings, and we think: that’s my story!

You can do this too.

Simply take your own Oooh moment – whatever it may be – and imagine the most sensational headline you can imagine. In the example I’ve already given: “Family drama robs boy of his grandparents.” (To be clear: I don’t mean to show disrespect to the individual in question. This is just an example.)

How does this help a non-profit get people to attend its wonderful free events?

Well, again, this is just an example. But instead of saying, “We’re running a free event about mental health, please come along”, you could grab the reader’s attention, and engage emotion, by sharing the moving human story identified by your own Oooh:

“Recently, we met a young man who carried a painful memory. It was a memory from his childhood. Something that particularly troubles him when he’s feeling run down, tired, depressed…

He didn’t know how to talk about it, and kept it bottled up – until he came to one of our free events, and dared to share his trouble. Having done so, he felt immensely relieved.

He had made friends. He left with a spring in his step, and a timetable of our upcoming events in his hand.”

And finally:

“If you’ve got something that troubles you, our next free event is on [insert date]. Please join us.”

That kind of thing.

When should you interrupt?

Journalism, Reporting

In ordinary life, if somebody says something objectionable, it may feel awkward to pull them up on it – but it’s probably the right thing to do.

Is it different for a journalist?

This week, somebody shared ugly racist sentiments with me and I offered no objection. I just looked blank. It’s something I’ve done many times.

Over the hours I was with this person, s/he said more, and worse, along the same lines.

I was surprised, because this person knew I was a journalist.

I feel ashamed that I didn’t “call it out”. 

If I was a broadcast journalist, I’d have felt compelled to do that at once, lest I sounded/looked complicit. 

But as a print journalist I tend to keep quiet and let people be themselves, and if that condemns them – so be it.

Was I right? Or am I deceiving myself? I don’t know. 

Write about what you know


I found this the other day, while clearing up: the first story I ever published in a national newspaper, The Independent.

I was so pleased. But also distressed, because they left off the first half of my name.

The reason I share it here is to show beginners that one way through the door is to write about your own experience. On that subject, nobody else can be as expert as you.

In passing, I wonder if I’m deluding myself to think that the world has changed quite a lot since then.


Walk and talk for mental and physical health

Events, Pilgrimage

Talk for Health invited us to run a three-hour storytelling pilgrimage from Islington to Hampstead, over Hampstead Heath.

A wonderful group of people took risks telling true stories, and others that were entirely made up.

We even had a go at competitive storytelling, and finished at Hampstead Parish Church, lighting a candle in thanks before saying goodbye.

Photos: Minnie (thank you!)

If you are one of the people who popped along, please do fill in my short feedback form, here:


Great leaders tell stories for a whole generation


Religious leaders understand that true power of stories. One, Rabbi Lord Sacks, spoke this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about exactly that.


He didn’t talk about the Torah, or any other religious text, but about a classic children’s book whose author died last week. It’s a short book, with large illustrations, and takes about 10 minutes to read.

In the story, a girl opens the door to a figure who is potentially very alarming.

Readers often asked the author if one of the central figures in this mild children’s story represented the Gestapo.

No, she said.

But that doesn’t really matter to Lord Sacks’s argument. The point he made is that the story gives courage.

That’s what stories do.

I really sat up when he quoted the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner: “Great leaders are the people who tell the story that explains a generation to itself.”

I’ve heard a bit about Gardner before now, but this made me want to find out more.

Lord Sacks posted his short talk on his website. Before you click, can you guess what children’s story he was talking about?

The Woolfs, in Sussex


A friend has suggested this route (or something like it, but with less walking on roads).

Starting around Charleston, the National Trust property where Vanessa Bell lived, crossing the Downs and the river where Virginia Woolf took her own life, then visiting the house where she wrote her wonderful books (also now owned by the National Trust).

Finishing with a walk to Lewes, where there’s a ruined priory.

I’m hugely keen. There’s art, mental health – and storytelling in the great outdoors.

Any additional thoughts, please leave a comment…

Chaucer’s Seat


I was in Southwark, delivering a heartfelt story of my own to staff at HarperCollins HQ.

Afterwards, I popped into the Cathedral, where lots of tourists were taking photographs of windows, statues and memorials to deceased clergy.

I popped into the area where the choir sits during services – and look whose name was on the seat!

None other than my hero, Geoffrey Chaucer, whose storytelling pilgrimage started here…

Writing somebody’s life story

Journalism, Obituary, Reporting

How can you summarise the life of a human being, in a way that’s both interesting and respectful?

That’s one of the challenges facing an obituary writer. And probably the first thing to accept is that it’s impossible to do it perfectly. I mean, a whole life!

This week, I was invited to write an obituary for The Times.

I’ve attached the finished story as a PDF (below), and thought it might be useful to describe how I went about researching and writing it.

First, obviously (?) I Googled him.

There wasn’t a lot to be found, apart from stories about the business he founded, a restaurant, and the many famous people who ate there – this particular restaurant was a bit of a legend.

I looked for contact details for some of those famous people. These included “celebrities” and also people famous within the world of restaurants and hospitality.

Wherever possible, I used the phone. In some cases, I couldn’t find a number so I sent an email.

Surprisingly quickly, these busy people got back to me. One close relative, whom I had not wanted to approach directly, surprised me by phoning while I was cleaning my bookshelves. I dropped everything and dashed into my office to take scribbled notes on a pad of A4 narrow-lined paper.

Later, walking back from the supermarket, I got a call from a close family friend who is also a well-known actress. I walked into a nearby cemetery to get away from traffic noise, and left a message suggesting a time to speak the following day.

My deadline was approaching, and I feared I hadn’t enough (this fear looms over every writing assignment, of course, but it’s not merely an illusion: it can be well founded). The close relative had spoken movingly, but gave little in the way of anecdote – and in writing the obituary I couldn’t just list a person’s attributes. I needed stories.

Happily, a few hours later, an actor called me and gave me lots of stories. Quite a few were not relevant, or insufficient to convey the magnitude of a man’s life, and professional achievements. But they were a start.

The following day – less than 24 hours before my deadline – a well known figure in the restaurant industry telephoned me. His insights were fresh and his stories were rich with specifics (rather than generalisations), and no less entertaining than the actor’s.

Additionally, he forwarded to me some memories from another former colleague, written to help in preparing the eulogy. I asked him to to confirm that I was free to use this, which he did.

I started typing.

Having been writing for a long time, I don’t tend to plan very much. I follow my instincts. And I’ve written a lot of obituaries over the years, so I’m broadly familiar with the structure required.

The opening must establish why this person is interesting, and worth knowing about. That’s particularly important if the subject is not a household name – but even the most famous people need to be put into context – “He was the first prime minister to do X”, or “She never won an Oscar, but is credited with making that possible for other women” , or whatever.

From then on, the obituary should reveal the person’s character, gifts and perhaps also foibles through stories. If it’s for The Times, the writer should not attempt to sound like him/herself but as the impersonal voice of the newspaper itself.

Similarly, quotes should be kept to a minimum. Stories supplied by relatives, friends and former colleagues are paraphrased.

Towards the end the obituary sets out essentials relating to birth, family, and death.

Ideally, all these things are handled with some artistry, so that the reader’s interest is sustained.

I finished the piece in good time, and sent it by email. The editor replied with satisfaction, and a couple of questions about missing facts. I asked the close relative to fill me in.

When the obituary came out, it was substantially as I’d written it. The only significant change was the removal of multiple references to the people I had spoken to. The effect was to minimise any sense that they had contributed to the obit – a good bit of editing, for which I’m grateful.

You can open a PDF of the obit (and download or print it), here: