What’s Stopping You From Being a Better Storyteller?

An excellent piece by a long time Los Angeles newsman, please read and share!

Storytelling is how we make sense of our lives

by Andy Ludlum via http://andyludlum.com/

Stories have been shared over the ages as religious parables, as hunters and animals scratched on cave walls and told as myths and legends whenever people gathered around a fire. Storytelling is in everything from tattoos to hip-hop.

There’s a lot of talk these days about how broadcast journalists need to be great storytellers. The truth is most of them are not telling stories at all. They’re just reciting ordinary facts in a predictable manner.

And what happens to you, the listener or viewer? All that “stuff” goes in one ear and out the other. It’s not at all memorable and you make no emotional connection with the story.

If you want to be an effective, storytelling journalist you need to think about these seven questions.

1. Are you talking to me?

You can’t tell stories if you don’t consistently talk to your audience. Recently, I listened to a couple of hours of all-news radio. And I realized the only time I heard the word “you” was in the commercials. Not even in the weather or traffic reports. “YOU might need a rain coat today and YOU probably should avoid the freeway with the accident.” TV news is a little better, thanks to decades of consultant coaching. But a lot of the personal contact in television is gratuitous. “There’s going to be a little rain on YOUR Thursday.” I remember years ago a very famous consultant came into our newsroom and decreed that the lead of every story had to contain the word “you” for “personal impact.” Naturally, some smart aleck came up with, “If you saw smoke in the sky this afternoon – that may have been your house burning down!” All good things can be taken too far, but listeners and viewers want to believe you are talking to them. Don’t under estimate the power of “you.” When you make a personal connection with your storytelling, your audience remembers what you say.

2. Do you talk to real people, not officials?

How often do you talk with regular folks in your newscasts? Not politicians, police officers and pundits. It’s ironic how excited we get about a trending topic or a story going viral but we look down our nose at a simple interview with a person on the street. I’ve always found local news broadcasts more interesting on holidays, probably because at least two of the three P’s, politicians and pundits are not as readily available and maybe in desperation to fill a show we end up telling the stories of real people. This can have a more serious side. I was struck when President Obama announced his executive action on immigration, we heard the program dissected from every point of view, but what was glaringly absent? Actually hearing the stories of people whose lives would be changed by the President’s action.

3. Do you know there’s real life outside of press conferences?

I was listening recently to a Los Angeles news talk radio station that usually does an excellent job promoting its irreverent brand. They ran a promo touting you don’t “bleep” with their hard-hitting news team because they were at ALL the press conferences. Frankly, if I never hear or see another press conference on the air it will be a good day. These “events” have become tedious, self-serving, self-congratulatory infomericals with only a tiny amount of useful information. The old adage about sausage making probably should apply to news conferences. It’s best to not know what went into making them. How often does your news team have the courage to not use news conference bites and instead go out and find the people affected and tell their stories?

4. Are you using highly suspect jargon?

Why do news writers and reporters have such a fascination for jargon, particularly police jargon? One critic suggested it was because local news is “built on manufacturing fear of crime and venerating police officers.” Perhaps so, but it’s not just local news. A 24-hour news network recently referred to people convicted by a jury and awaiting sentencing as “suspects!” I’ve never understood why anyone finds it necessary to use the word “suspect.” If no one is identified, isn’t it more accurate and certainly more colorful, to refer to robbers, killers or even bad guys? I once had a utility PR person plead with me to use the phrase “power outage” instead of “power failure” because ‘failure” made it sound like the electric company did something wrong. I had another flack tell a reporter “outage” was more accurate because the electricity itself doesn’t fail! News flash: when I flip the switch and lights don’t come on, it’s a failure. These examples are minor compared to the grossly misleading, white-washing phrase “officer involved shooting.” This one makes me absolutely crazy. It’s only natural for the police to want to find a nice way to say they’ve shot somebody. But with Ferguson and other recent instances of police use of deadly force it is vital reporters tell clear and accurate stories. Every occupation has its own jargon. But it is our job as journalists and storytellers to translate the jargon into plain English. If your newscasts are filled with meaningless and misleading jargon, you are going to fail as an effective storyteller.

5. Is your writing so bad I have to flee on foot?

There are hundreds of words and phrases used every day in broadcast news copy that you’d never use if you were talking to a friend. Some of them are cop-talk. Pursuits. Manhunts. Fled on foot. Gunned down. Canine units. Others are from the courtroom or from an irrational fear of winding up in a courtroom. Allegations. Arraignment. Reportedly. The most overused word is allegedly, despite the fact that it is so easy to write without it. I don’t want anything on tap except for beer. I don’t want to be in the wake of anything unless I’m waterskiing. I don’t want to know about being closely watched unless you’re warning me about the NSA. If I’m plagued, hospitalized and clinging to life let’s only hope there is a last ditch effort by my ragtag army of doctors and those unsung heroes don’t turn a blind eye to a cure that would save me from being added to the death toll. But ultimately, in the final analysis, at the end of the day, only time will tell. Need I say anymore? You’d never use these words in a normal conversation and you shouldn’t in your storytelling. Write like people talk.

6. Do your stories have a beginning, middle and end?

Storytelling is not as hard as you might think. You already know classic story structure. First you set the scene. Think of “Once upon a time” from fairy tales. Then you tell the listener or viewer who the story is about and help them build an emotional connection with that person. Why? This allows them to see themselves as part of the story. Next add dramatic tension or conflict. Finally you resolve the conflict, giving it relevance to the listener or viewer. You make me care. Now you’re writing news, so you can’t act as if you were writing fiction. Not every story has to be written this way, but an awareness of basic structure will help you be a more effective storyteller. I often hear, “I can’t do that in radio or TV news because it takes too long.” I like to show them the famous Hemmingway short story. “For Sale. Baby’s Shoes. Never Worn.” That’s tweet heaven, just 35 characters. Still 105 characters left for hashtags and plugging your station’s website!

7. Do your stories make me care?

The allure of storytelling seems to be part of our DNA. We crave a personal connection with the way we get our information. We remember stories better than plain facts because our brains perceive little distinction between the story we are told and something that is actually happening. The storyteller and the journalist share a common goal, making the listener or viewer care about the people involved in the story they are telling. And what better way to cement that personal connection with the stories we tell than using our digital tools to be interactive and collaborative with our audience? This will soon be so much more than newsrooms sending out tweets and posting on Facebook. Virtual reality technology will allow journalists to put us safely in the middle of story. Hunger in Los Angeles, a story about people going hungry at food banks was produced at MxR Lab at the University of Southern California. Viewers wore virtual reality goggles and some became so emotionally involved with the story they were “crying and overwhelmed.” How often do your stories touch the audience emotionally? And how often do you suggest ways your audience can get involved and help?

Take the first step, contact me if you’d like to have your product reviewed for effective storytelling.

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