I’ve heard many speakers make one of two mistakes when it comes to description: (1) not enough, and (2) too much. What’s hard is finding the “Goldilocks” spot – where it’s just right.
This post explores two questions: How much description is just right? And is it different in speaking than in writing?
The second one is easier to answer: yes. There is a difference between the best amounts of description in a story you tell compared to a story you write down. This is one of several distinctions one can make between written and spoken language, along with vocabulary and sentence structure. Of course, even in print, many writers overdo description. Perhaps Herman Melville can get away with pages of description about how whale fat is rendered, but most writers can’t. Even so, when a story is written down, the reader has the choice of how to engage with descriptive passages – whether to linger indulgently or skim them quickly – a choice which, of course, the listener to a spoken story does not have.
As a speaker, therefore, you have an obligation to provide the “just right” amount of description in your stories. Use too little, and you will miss the opportunity to draw the listener into the world of your story:
From out of nowhere, a woman walked up to me…
Too much, and your listeners will start over-processing, where they lag behind your narrative as they mentally try to fit all the pieces of description together. Then they are likely to miss what you say next, which is most likely the action at the heart of your story:
As I savored the sweet, nutty aroma of my Pike’s Place brew, a statuesque woman with dark hair to match her eyes approached me wearing a blue, floral-print frock with a hint of green…
When the amount of description is just right, the listeners quickly get just enough information to draw them into the scene, while leaving them free to fill in details in their own imaginations:
Just as I could start to smell the coffee brewing, a tall brunette in a blue dress walked up to me…
Did you see what I did there? I began the same scene three different ways. The first one contained nothing memorable, while the second one is (I hope you will agree) amateurishly over-written. The last one grabs your attention while leaving your imagination free to fill in the details of the woman in blue. Notice, too, how it draws on two senses: smell and sight. It’s always a good idea to involve more than one sense in your descriptions, as long as you don’t over-write as in example number two.
Engage the senses with just enough detail to bring a scene to life and make it memorable, while giving the listeners plenty of room to fill in more details in their own minds. That’s how you find the Goldilocks spot and make your descriptions “just right.”