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.
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.
I told him to have confidence. But I lost mine as I watched the pool attendant make her way around the pool. There were bikini-clad women sipping drinks; young guys in their 20s reading Men's Journal while showing off their six-pack stomachs; and vacationers reading books on their Kindles. Would this crowd vote for the so-called elevator music over the hip stuff?
After talking to every pool patron, the attendant made a beeline to me. I was already gearing up for my rebuttal.
"You guys won," she said.
The music would remain soft. Clancy couldn't believe it. Neither could I. One inconvenient question had changed the status quo.
But the couple next to me didn't like the democratic outcome. They complained loudly amongst themselves, wondering who the jerk was that had questioned the music in the first place. They were using some of the same colorful language that had been in the earlier music.
I decided to introduce myself. Politely, I told them I was the guy responsible for the music change. Bluntly, I told them why — my child had heard the s-word four times in one song. I said the word to get my point across.
It worked. The man smiled and said he understood. "It's all good," he said.
I told the guy that the softer stuff wasn't necessarily what I'd choose if I was alone at the pool. But we weren't alone at the pool. There were little kids all over the place. Seems like the music should be fit for young ears. Credit Grand America for agreeing.
Later that night, Clancy and I were in the hotel lounge. A piano player was performing. Clancy is quite a player for his age. I encouraged him to introduce himself to the pianist and ask if he'd allow Clancy to play a few numbers. Clancy said no way — the pianist would never go for it.
So I went and asked for him. My question surprised the pianist. But he obliged. Without any music, Clancy sat at the beautiful grand piano and belted out a medley of Billy Joel and Sarah McLachlan songs. The moment he hit the opening notes of "Piano Man," the cocktail waitresses stopped and gathered around. They were nodding their heads in amazement that a little boy could play like that.
At the end of his medley, everyone in the lounge broke into applause as he hit the last note. Great moment!
Clancy's smile was worth a million bucks. I gave him a $20 tip. But the lessons for the apprentice are more enduring — music can bring stories to life, and it pays to ask good questions.