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Jeff Benedict: Apprentice learned lessons on music, asking questions

Published: Sunday, Sept. 4 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Last week I took a business trip to Salt Lake City. Mark Willes, the CEO of Deseret Management Corp., asked me to conduct a writing seminar on the elements of storytelling for the folks at KSLTV and KSL Newsradio.

I brought along my apprentice, my 11-year-old son, Clancy. He's a promising photo journalist and a whiz when it comes to gadgets and technology. So I put him to work taking pictures and helping with music.

What's music got to do with writing? In my case, a lot.

Before we arrived, I had the audience read chapter one of "Poisoned," where I tell the tragic story of a 6-year-old girl who dies in her mother's arms after succumbing to E. coli. It may be the saddest chapter I've ever written. I wrote it while listening to George Winston's CD "Forest," over and over. I cried the whole time.

To re-create that writing experience for my audience, I had Clancy play the Winston music from his iPod through an in-house sound system while I read the tear-jerking lines.

Music is something I use often to help me write with feeling and emotion.

Another key element to good storytelling is asking provocative questions. The most provocative question a journalist can ask is: why? That one word can unlock a story. I'll illustrate.

After my presentation to KSL, Clancy and I returned to the Grand America Hotel. It was 90 degrees and sunny. So we hit the pool. The first thing I noticed was the music. It was loud, obnoxious and littered with profanity.

Before we put our towels down, Clancy heard a certain four-letter word repeated four times in one song. He asked if there was any way I could get the music changed.

Good question. Let's find out.

I flagged a pool attendant, a young woman in her early 20s. She was mouthing the lyrics when she approached.

"Who chooses the music?" I asked her.

"My boss," she said.

"Why this music?" I asked.

"This is what everyone likes," she said.

"Everyone?"

She smiled and nodded her head up and down.

I looked toward some senior citizens reading books under an umbrella. "Even those people over there with gray hair?"

The pool attendant blushed. "Well, not them," she said.

I looked at the parents helping their toddlers on flotation devices in the water. I said I had a hunch they didn't prefer this music either.

The pool attendant disappeared. A couple minutes later the music abruptly changed. Suddenly we were hearing Rod Stewart sing: "Have I told you lately that I love you?"

"Hey, Dad," Clancy beamed, "they changed the music."

The vibe around the pool changed, too. Less tense. More friendly.

It pays to ask questions, I told Clancy.

But questions can also lead to controversy. The couple beside us didn't appreciate the change. They looked my age and apparently liked the rap. They started mocking the softer stuff, saying Rod Stewart and Carly Simon sounded more like elevator music than pool music. They complained to the pool attendant, insisting that anyone who didn't like the previous music should leave the pool.

The pool attendant disappeared again. When she reappeared the second time she told me that her boss had directed her to approach every pool guest and poll their music preference. The question was simple: Do you prefer the previous music or the current music?

By this time a dreadfully slow, sad ballad was playing.

"We're going to lose, Dad," Clancy said.

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