Think about who you respect most at your shop or your dream TV station. Usually it’s the people who produce stories or newscasts you cannot turn away from. That person knows the secrets of compelling television writing. Now we are going to dish the secrets they know. We’re going to teach you how to “rule the word” and write killer copy.
When you attend writing seminars on Saturday mornings at the station, you are told a lot about active voice, introducing sound bites, cause and effect, writing to video and strong lead sentences. Here’s why: These techniques help you boil down the story. What we will outline here, should help you do that even more and in a way that’s easier to understand and execute.
All of the techniques you hear are trying to get you to find and showcase the human element of the story you are covering. This goes for reporter and producer copy. In order to figure that out you must understand the facts of the story but more importantly you must understand how the story impacts people. An easy way to do that is to take a look at the facts, then write down your personal reaction to the story. Think about your spouse’s reaction and maybe what your best friend would say. Is there a common link? How did people react in the newsroom to this story during the daily editorial meeting? This gut check will help you draft interesting copy beginning, middle and end. The key is acknowledging your personal reaction and the reactions of others. You want your copy to cause a similar reaction with viewers.
Next, consider which fact really gnaws at you in this story. That is the fact you need to lead with. Here’s an example. Once we covered the story of a highway patrol trooper who was shot and killed during a traffic stop. Turns out the person he pulled over was a serial bank robber. The officer was young and just recently began patrolling on his own. It took a long, wild, police chase and shootout to catch the bank robber. People across several counties were impacted by detours because of the shooting and resulting chase. Our station had video of the shot up police car, a picture of the trooper who was killed, lots of incredible video of the police chase and the takedown from the station news chopper. We also had sound with the patrolman’s former training officer that said the downed patrolman always promised his wife he’d wear his bullet proof vest, as well as sound from the feisty sheriff who ordered his men to shoot at the suspect’s car to stop him on a busy interstate. (Obviously this was a team coverage scenario.) Guess what we opened the newscast with? We started with a photo of the trooper, then dissolved to video of the shot up cruiser in which he died. Yes, we chose those shots over incredible police chase video. Why? By waiting, we made the chase video which we showcased next, have meaning. We tied those two shots; the man and his shattered car window with lines similar to these:
Highway Patrol Officer Eric Nicholson promised his wife, he’d always wear his bullet proof vest so he’d come home to her. Today, the vest didn’t matter. He died in a hail of bullets and shattered glass.
In an era when newscasts across the country featured near daily car chases and officers being shot, we had to make that trooper real to the audience, because he was a real person. His simple promise to his wife made him one of us.
Need more convincing? Watch how news stories play out on the internet. At first you see tweets with just the facts. Then emotions start coming out. People go on Facebook and start writing how they feel. Blogs pop up and people start talking about how they feel and ways to try to change what happened. They talk impact right away. Most television stations tend to stick to the facts with a few gratuitous sound bites, hoping that’s enough to carry the emotion throughout. Instead, for many viewers, it comes off forced, shallow and even trite. Television stations that do it come across as stale and out of touch. Writers who “rule the word” immediately showcase the impact to avoid being trite.
Now that you’ve identified the facts that will trigger a real human emotion in your audience, use them to create a beginning, middle and end to the story. Here’s another example; a fiery crash blocks traffic during rush hour. By all means, show the flames. Then get to the impact right away. Let sound from witnesses set up each part of the 5 w’s you need to cover. Show someone shaking his head at the long line of traffic, then show a map of what’s blocked off. Describe what people are doing in line. Describe whether the firemen look particularly worn out from the fire or need more chemicals. Take the audience inside the story like no Twitter headline can. Weave in human elements throughout the story. When you show one of the firemen, say if he’s a veteran and is tired of seeing these kind of crashes. Was he hoping to avoid this kind of call one shift this week? Keep the story real while presenting the facts. Have a reporter and/or photographer drive the detour route and time it, so people know when they need to leave to get around the mess. A meaningful line here and there will make your copy rock because you will tell a story.
When you write any kind of news story, engage the senses. This involves more than just writing for the ear and the eye. If you can, describe what the fire smells like. How far away can you feel the heat? If you can consistently engage two senses at a time throughout your copy, viewers will not turn away. For television, that means marrying video and news copy. Describe the video, but not so closely you detach the audience from it. You want your copy to add another layer to the video you are showing. Applying interesting facts is a strong way to do this.
This may seem like a lot of work, but it isn’t. Once you get a little practice, this is a much easier and engaging way to write. The words really do seem to type themselves. You also become more personally invested, so you tend to double check your facts more and write fewer errors. The stories become real for you as well, not just another bit of copy you have to pound out on deadline.
If this still seems strange or cheesy to you, consider one last thing. While viewers are watching your work on television, most are also on the internet nowadays. They hear something you say and look it up and start paying attention to the copy on the computer screen instead of your work. Then they might start surfing YouTube to see if there’s any home video. Why, when you’re showing them video on the television screen? It’s because a regular person shot the home video, someone just like the viewer on the computer. You don’t count as a “regular person.” You are a detached journalist. Now consider this. While those viewers are online they are looking for a way to influence the story, whether it’s with more facts so they look smarter at work the next day or by finding a blog where they can throw their own two cents in. They ignore the rest of your work. Marketing researchers call it “continuous partial attention.” That is what you are up against every day. This is a far cry from the old lectures about people getting ready in the morning so you should “write for radio.” For many, you are not the expert with final say. You are the journalist who gets an idea into a viewer’s head (if you are lucky!) just before the viewer runs away with it. While your news managers sweat over how to capitalize on the internet reaction to TV coverage, you have one job: Making sure the viewer doesn’t turn away from the TV. Letting viewers feel the emotion and/or impact of the story always sells. Especially if you can engage viewers senses better than an internet story or video.