Thursday, May 7, 2009

Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone loves a story

by Richard L. Weaver II

Have you ever noticed as you read the morning newspaper that each article tells a story? Before reading the details about a tornado’s devastation, you will hear about a family and the havoc it caused in their lives as well as their loss of precious family heirlooms. Before being told about an initiative by a local community group to clean up area parks, you will follow one individual and his or her discoveries in the kinds of litter found. No matter what information is shared, news outlets use stories for two reasons: to humanize their reporting and to invoke an emotional response from listeners or viewers.

Although telling stories may be part of human nature, some people are clearly better at it than others. We grow up being read stories by parents or relatives. Then we grow older and buy novels that tell stories, go to movies or watch television where stories lead us from a beginning to an ending, and end up, of course, telling stories to our own children. Compelling stories can engage audiences for long periods of time.

For newspaper writers stories are more than the prose they write; it is a full package of information and images. The better the package, the more likely people will read and remember it. There is more to presenting a full package than merely telling a complete story. Readers of newspapers are often in a hurry and rarely read the full story. A full package, first, gives the hurried reader a variety of alternatives for getting the information. Second, a full package gives multiple chances for catching the scanning reader. If the headline doesn’t draw the scanners in, perhaps a picture or graphic will.

When learning the art of newspaper writing, journalists discover different ways they can present information. There are a tremendous variety of ways including staff photographs, archival photographs, donated photographs, illustrations, artist’s renderings, maps, diagrams, timelines, chronologies, glossaries, use-it boxes, what’s-next boxes, tables, charts, and graphs, statistics, cast of characters, bio boxes, fact boxes, by the numbers, comparisons, lists, pull quotes (does one particular quote sum up the story?), fresh quotes, rails and strips (rails run vertically with the story; strips run horizontally), sidebars, main headlines, deck headlines (additional information presented in full, conversational sentences), captions, cutlines (the words beneath a photo), online layers, logos, and reefers (where readers are directed to stories on related topics).

The reason for the extensiveness of the list above is twofold. First, it offers those who have websites a variety of possibilities for attracting viewers. Often there is little difference between what happens on websites and what happens when newspaper writers want to attract readers. Many of the same resources are available to both. Second, any storyteller can benefit from realizing the value of multiple avenues or multiple channels for winning over listeners. When a storyteller realizes the full potential that newspaper writers have at their disposal, it can only motivate them to improve.

The effectiveness of stories when it comes to holding attention is well-known. From my own personal experience in teaching for more than 30 years, I can attest to their strength over-and-over. There is no single form of evidence, whether it be facts, opinions, statistics, testimony, comparisons or contrasts, analogies, metaphors, or any other, that will consistently outperform stories for holding audience attention. Often in my lectures you could hear a pin drop when I told one.

If for any reason you want to perfect your ability in storytelling, there are some specific suggestions that may help. First, you need to find a story — your story — to tell. It could be inspirational, a lesson learned, observations or opinions, historical records, just plain bragging, a biography, or an autobiography. The second thing is to realize that you don’t need to be perfect the first time you begin telling it. If you have prepared your story reasonably well, it is likely to give your listeners (and yourself) pleasure. Remember, each time you tell your story, you and your story are likely to improve.

In speech-communication classes, we teach students about the three speeches they give for every performance: the speech you want to give, the speech you give, and the speech you wish you had given. Telling stories is no different if your goal is to improve. The story you wish you had told is crucial when it comes to improvement.

Start by telling your story to friends or to a small group of people. As you gain confidence, you can begin telling your story to larger intimate groups. With such practice, you will begin telling your story to large groups of strangers.

The styles of storytellers vary widely. That means that some suggestions work well for some people and may not work well for others. The point is that storytellers need to find a style and approach that is comfortable. Storytelling can be magic, but that, in part, is due to its personal nature. When they bring their listeners their own full force — their voice, their ideas, their words, their emphasis. Avoid vocalizations such as “ahh,” “um,” or “y’know.”

When storytellers face their listeners, they need to face their audience squarely. There should be no fidgeting, hands in pockets, shifting from foot to foot, or any other potential distractions.

To keep storytelling personal, storytellers need to make intimate and direct contact with their listeners. They need to talk with them — not at them — and to do this, they need to look them in the eyes and talk naturally and comfortably and conversationally. Because storytelling is interactive, storytellers must pay attention to listeners and respond appropriately to their responses — changing, adding, and subtracting as necessary.

It is important that listeners can actually digest the story — “see” it — as it unfolds, so storytellers need to relax and take their time. When audience members can laugh, feel, reflect, and even hang on the edge of their seats for what’s to come next, storytellers not only grasp and hold their attention, audience members listen and remember what they hear.

Everyone has a story to tell, and people love to hear a story because it can enrich their lives. People revel in others’ triumphs, grow in their struggles, share in their difficulties, and learn from their problems, thus, it’s important to learn how to tell them well.


At ProBlogger , there is a very good essay, “Telling your story with words and images,” by Lorelle VanFossen of Lorelle on WordPress. She has great suggestions (specific tips) for those readers who blog on telling their story and using photographs and images to enhance it. This is a great essay.

At Tell Your Story in Layers, there must be at least 30 specific suggestions for material that you can add to a story to enhance its meaning, engage readers, hold attention, or add interest. This is a very good essay full of bullet points.


Copyright May, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! For a non-journalist, you certainly hit the nail on the head regarding the most interesting newspaper (and web) articles. A good journalist manages to capture attention not just by the facts presented, but by how he or she weaves those facts into a compelling story. The ability to do that is what separates the best journalists from those who simply relay a series of facts.


Essays, SMOERs Words-of-Wisdom, Fridays Laugh, book reviews... And Then Some! Thank you for your comment.