Journalists are great storytellers. We have to understand storytelling just to get into the business, and once we’re hired, we get plenty of practice. While working as a TV reporter, I was tasked to cover a few short stories (VO’s and VOSOT’s for those in the industry) and one long-form story (or reporting package) every single day on the job. That means, in just my short four-and-a-half years on the air, I created more than 1,170 long-form news stories alone. And that’s a short-lived journalism career compared to some of the long-timers!
So who’s your best resource for creating powerful stories that connect? A journalist. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Well, no one’s perfect, but journalists are pretty damn good at storytelling. While practical experience is often the most effective way to fine-tune your storytelling skills, you can start out strong with these four secrets that I learned as a journalist to create content that connects.
1. Find your story by asking the right questions
The first hurdle in effective storytelling is getting started. What story are you going to tell and how are you going to tell it? In my time reporting, I was frequently asked: “How do you pick what stories you’ll be covering?” In TV news, journalists are expected to bring new story ideas to the team every day to be discussed in an editorial meeting, where the producers work in collaboration with the rest of news team to determine your story assignment for the day.
During my first couple of weeks on the job, I dreaded these meetings like a blind date. I’d come to the table with my story ideas thinking I’d thought them through, only to be grilled with questions from my superiors. My first news director would ask me after every pitch, “why do I care?” I blanked on this one a couple of times, and felt embarrassed that I was wasn’t even sure I could answer that question. It didn’t take long to realize that the answer to this crucial question sets the stage for even greater questions to follow – the ones to ask during your interviews on the topic.
“Great questions make great reporting,” – Diane Sawyer
But before we get into those hard-hitting questions, let’s start with the basics. It seems obvious to ask the who, what, where, when, and why – but these can get overlooked if you focus too narrowly on the end result of your story. Heck, I’ve worked with reporters who’ve hit the jackpot on a story but failed to get the subject’s name. Make sure you get all your ducks in a row so that you have the necessary foundation to build an even greater story.
If you’re unsure about something, don’t just smile in agreement. Ask for more information right then and there. This will avoid an awkward phone call, plus save you from a headache when you’re piecing things together later. After all, a puzzle with one small piece missing is still considered incomplete.
Now, for the big puzzle pieces – the deep questions. It’s wise to do a little homework before you head out on your quest to find the root of a story. Similar to making a grocery list, it’s never a bad idea to have some questions jotted down, just in case. But, while it’s wise to have some questions on reserve, the key to getting to the root of the story is to pay attention. Allow your subject’s responses to influence your follow-up questions. In order to ask the right question, you must listen to the answer that came before it.
2. Listen with an open mind
While a little homework prior to an interview demonstrates thoughtful preparation, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to have pre-determined questions teed-up before your interview subject has completed their thought. Just as with any conversation, it’s off-putting when someone responds with a prepared question that indicates they weren’t really paying attention to you. Not only does this negatively impact your relationship with the subject and their ability to trust you, it interrupts pivotal points that can lead to major breakthroughs in your story.
On almost an everyday basis as a reporter, I would go into a story thinking it will turn out one way, then find myself calling my producer to let them know we’ve got a new angle. You need to be okay with your story shifting direction. In fact, don’t even think of it as derailment. If you truly listen, you’ll be guided to even greater questions.
“I never learned anything when I was talking.” – Katie Couric.
Anyone can go into an interview with a dozen questions prepared, but a true storyteller finds the most impactful pieces to the puzzle right there in the interview chair or out in the field. You learn the importance of putting the community first by listening to what they value. That’s the bread and butter to truly connecting with your audience.
3. The most impactful stories have emotion
By lending an ear and allowing room for honesty and vulnerability, your audience is more likely to connect to your story emotionally. Think of the most memorable story you’ve heard. What was it about? How did it make you feel? When I say emotional, I don’t mean it has to be dramatic, either. Emotion can take on many shapes – humor, excitement, pain, joy – you name it.
One of the biggest ways to achieve emotional storytelling is to connect your story to a specific person or group of people. If every story simply stated the facts, most of us wouldn't listen or remember any of it.
4. Always follow-up
So you’ve published your story, you’ve connected with your audience, and you have them emotionally invested, now what? You’ve worked so hard to ramp up engagement, it would be a missed opportunity to stop here. There are likely extra details, new facts, later developments, reactions or new issues that have been raised since the original story. Journalists know all too well the importance of following-up on a story and the impact this can have on its followers.
As a reporter, I continually checked-in with the community on the stories I had covered, whether it be through social media monitoring, or even picking up the phone. Had I not followed up on my stories for updates, who would bring those stories to the assignment meetings I talked about earlier? Whenever you’re telling a powerful story that connects, it’s important not to completely turn your back on it. Even if it’s story about your business. If you want to keep your audience, or even customers happy, you’ve got to make sure they don’t feel forgotten.
If your audience cares about a newly passed law, follow up your original story with another on how real companies are dealing with the changes. If you know that time and resources are a huge barrier to getting things done, continue to create stories and content that help them solve those problems. If it’s a problem today, chances are it will still be a problem in three months.
Why Should You Care?
So I’ve given you the inside scoop on powerful storytelling, but how can this help your business? Let’s face it, whether you’re a small business or a major corporation, exposure is crucial for survival. You want people to get the word out about your business. The challenge is that people have become more selective than ever. We’re now programmed to tune-out in-your-face, salesy content. But what people are doing more of, is engaging with powerful content. They’re sharing things they like, things that interest them – and truly powerful storytelling is interesting! Even if you’re in an industry that (on the surface) doesn’t seem so glamorous, there’s always a story that is interesting to your audience.
Whether it’s a story that’s used for marketing or a story for the press, keep these journalism secrets in your back pocket: Take the time to get the facts, ask the right questions, listen and discover your story’s emotional roots, and consider every story a revolving door filled with new perspectives, possibilities and future opportunities.