Sharon McMahon is a former high-school government teacher who, in the past 8 months, has amassed a following of 655,000 on her @sharonsaysso Instagram account. She provides an overview and explanation of current political events that are free from drama, partisan hype and manufactured outrage. Sometimes she rallies her immense following to donate to a noble cause, and through these brief campaigns has raised millions of dollars for medical debt forgiveness and regular people experiencing hardship and trauma. She seems to intuitively know that giving provides a boost of happiness to the giver, and that these types of exercises bond people to her community.
One of Sharon's most impactful skills is her ability to weave a narrative about a boring, obscure political side character. On the inaugural episode of her podcast (also called "Sharon Says So") she spends almost 30 minutes describing a few years in the life of William Rufus King, a former Vice President of the United States and founder of Selma, Alabama. I hung on every word as she shared the -- mostly mundane -- twists and turns in the life of this unfortunate historical "frat boy" (her words). At the end of the story, King dies after serving a single day as Vice President.
Actual photo of historical "frat boy" William Rufus King
King is likely relegated to a single line of text in most history books. But Sharon's telling of his story is fascinating and memorable. Ironically, it seems the more mundane details that we learn about a person's life, the more interesting the story becomes. Add a twist at the end, when he ignobly dies of tuberculosis after an 11-day journey from Cuba to Washington DC to assume his new leadership of the United States. This person's life details have been deemed worthy of 25 minutes of our attention! We expected great things from him! But nope, he dies.
In one of his illuminating conversations with Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant pulled out this gem:
"Interest is specificity plus surprise"
The key to making a boring historical figure or event come alive? Add as much detail as possible, and leave the twist for the end.
A few more:
Obscure historical figures who changed the world
The "butterfly effect" explanation of history (as popularized by Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park) may have actually come from a 1952 short story by Ray Bradbury about a time traveler who steps on a butterfly in the prehistoric past, changing the outcome of a presidential election in 2055.
Credits: Sharon Says So Episode 1: The Man Who Almost Wasn't Vice President
WorkLife with Adam Grant Bonus Episode: A Debate with Malcolm Gladwell
"Surprise" Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash