Storytelling on a dime.

You hear it all the time.  Reporters and photographers say something to the effect of:  “Storytelling is great and all, but I’ve got too much to do and I don’t have time for that stuff.”  And while I understand where those comments come from, I don’t buy it.  TV news today is filled with more deadlines and “side work” than ever before.  Often your day starts with:  “Welcome to work, now get out the door we have a story we need you live on at noon.”  You knock that out and then it’s on to your “real” one or two stories for the evening shows.  Then there are the standup teases, vo/sot’s and versions of your story(ies) for your station’s website.  Most of us also, blog, tweet, and possibly  take some still shots for the website.  No doubt it’s a LOT of work!  But I promise you, storytelling does not have to add extra work to that pile.  It really is easy to pump out good storytelling “on a dime!”  It’s just a matter of shifting your way of thinking.

Typically, the toughest stories to get your storytelling mindset right, are the so-called “boring newspaper” stories.  These are the stories where you have to interview some sort of “official” and, because of deadline demands, no one else.  So, how do you “tell a story” when all you have is an official and their boring “officialese?”  First off, while the photog is setting up for the interview, talk with the interviewee about anything but the story you are covering.  Take a look around the office if that’s where you are talking.  Often, you can find some great tips into who this person really is in “real life.”  When you find something, chat him/her up about it.  I remember one recent interview where I thought I was dead in this respect.  The guy was nice enough but not the most personable and clearly not comfortable about being interviewed on camera.  Then I noticed a photo of him with one of the most well-known politicians of the last quarter century.   It turns out that he once did security work at a very high level.  I asked him about it and it eventually led to some common ground between us.  That little nugget helped immensely.  First, it loosened him up for the interview and allowed me to pull some bites out of him that had a little personality.  Secondly, it gave me a way to make this “official” more of a “real person.”  I started the piece by talking about how this man had once protected some of the powerful people in the country, but now helps offer a different kind of protection for this small town.  His past really did not have squat to do with the story of the day, but it gave me a way to turn this guy into a “character” in our story.  When you can do that, you give viewers a reason to see that person as more than just some “official.”  You have them interested in watching.  Remember, good stories have characters.  Turn your subjects into characters, not just officials who give you sound bites.

Nat sound is another area where you CAN add to your story without a ton of extra effort.  It comes down to this:  Shoot (and use) just about anything that makes sound to give your stories some life.  Seriously use just about anything.  Nat sound that is integral and directly related to your story (the power saws in a story about construction or crackling flames in a spot news fire story) are always the best.  But that kind of sound is not always there.  If it’s not, look around and try to find something else.  The idea behind nat sound is getting people engaged in your story.  Read any study or talk to any consultant about what people are doing when the news is on their TV.  They are normally doing everything but “watching.”  In the morning they are making breakfast, getting dressed for work or getting the kids ready for school.  The TV is on, but it may as well be video wallpaper.  So, your job is to give them a reason to stop what they’re doing, turn around and watch.  Nat sound is a way to do that.  Say you’re on that story about construction.  But, in the time you’ve been given to shoot it, the crew is on a lunch break.  You are stuck right?  Nope, you can overcome.  Look around, are there people getting in and out of cars (car door sound)? Maybe there’s a fire truck or ambulance going by with a siren on.  Sometimes using seemingly unrelated nat sound is just the trick.  Think about it.  You’re at home with the news on but aren’t sitting and watching.  You know the reporter is talking about construction and all of a sudden you hear a siren!  What the…?  You are probably going to turn around to see why.  This is why you shoot and try to use any nat sound you can get.  You want to make viewers turn around and pay close attention.  Again, it’s really not any extra work.  But it will add immeasurably to the quality of your stories.

When it comes to writing, try to use a piece of that nat sound off the top.  Failing that, make sure you start by establishing the character you’ve easily uncovered using the tips above.  Fill in the middle with the meat of the story you’ve been assigned.  Then end it with another tidbit that makes your subject a “real person.”

All stories have a few basic things in common.  They have a beginning, a middle and an end.  They also have characters.  Shoot and write with these things in mind and you cannot go wrong.   Turn these things into habits and suddenly your “reports” turn into “stories” and your work begins to stand out from all the “Just the facts, Jack!”, boring, information presenters.  Quickly you will establish yourself as a “storyteller.”  Your producers, EP’s and News Director will appreciate you more and your resume reel will become stronger and more marketable.  Suddenly the next chapter in your personal, career story becomes much more interesting with minimal investment from a little storytelling on a dime!

 

Produce it up!

Nothing like hearing this phrase while on deadline: “Be sure and produce it up.”   You think: “Sure, I can barely get the stuff I already have on my plate done, why not!”

Actually this is easier than it might seem.  “Producing it up” really means taking the information you have and putting it in nice tiny bundles. Think of it as buying a sweater set and matching jewelry as gifts.  You wrap the cardigan separately from the tank top underneath.  Then you wrap the earrings separately from the necklace.  Looking at all those boxes makes it seem like you spent a lot more than you did.  It’s all in the packaging.

When you “produce it up” you generally provide a nats/vo or vo/sot set up for the anchors to read that provides an overview in a visual way.  Then you focus the package on a particular element of the subject.  You save an interesting element for an anchor tag that usually is a question answer between the reporter and the anchors or maybe a vo or vosot for the anchors to read.  The point is to make the information you are providing clearer to understand.  You also are making the news more appealing to the eye so hopefully the viewer doesn’t daydream or head to the computer to cruise Facebook instead.

The other reason for “producing it up” is to try and showcase the team.   It’s showcasing your anchors and reporters as experts that work together to get the most information possible on a subject in a given day.  No, you really aren’t usually getting any more information or shooting any more video.  This is smoke and mirrors, but it works effectively. While focusing on the elements, you naturally must write more concisely.  This helps the ear understand while the visuals make the information appealing for the eyes.  Two senses aroused, means less likelihood viewers turn away.

One last benefit to “producing it up”: it makes producers/anchors/reporters and even photojournalists have to talk with each other a little more about the news.  This helps prevent fact errors.  It’s another level of script approval.

Still confused about “producing it up” and the benefits.  Consider the following.  When you watch coverage of a major event, like the earthquake in Japan you probably find yourself talking to the television asking questions.  Many times the questions you are asking could impact you or other viewers directly.  Once again we’re talking about human impact. The first morning of coverage of Japan, I found myself frustrated with all the networks.  I had to get online and see people’s stories on You Tube to really understand how to gage the event.  I needed to feel it.  I needed to know how far the quake was from Tokyo.  I needed graphics describing how the Tsunami came over.  The networks were too overwhelmed getting information.  I had to piecemeal from different stations and  Twitter.  Producing up some of these elements would have helped me understand the true depth of the losses.  Next, I wanted to know what this meant for costs of things from Japan.  Would the stock market crash because of this?  Answering these stories with graphics, live interviews, special maps and packages are great ways to produce up coverage locally.  This is what some stations call the “WIFM” (What’s In It For Me) of coverage.  Simply, it is another way to showcase the human element of stories.  These are things you want to provide viewers so they don’t turn away from your newscast to jump on the internet for the answers.

The final point, I cannot stress enough is “producing it up” is producer friendly.   It makes your job easier. You can visualize your rundown better, you can choose elements like natural sound, sidebars and graphics more easily.  It also will help you write succinctly.  Simply put, it just makes your newscast look sharp. Fear not. Go ahead, give it a try!

 

Humble pie; why a slice of self-examination can change your career.

This is the best advice we ever got.  An EP in a large market where we worked told us to watch and critique our own work consistently.  Sounds nuts, you already saw the package or newscast, right?  Not really.  You will be amazed at what you pick up looking at the work later on.

Practice makes perfect.  In his book, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell explains the 10,000 hour rule.  Researchers have found that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to perfect a skill.  So how does this apply to watching yourself?  It’s another chance to practice.  You relive the event and the elements you had available when you critique your own work.

You can also pick up on your own weaknesses, then work around them.  Often you will see phrases or techniques you rely on too heavily, that can make your work seem stale and sometimes even goofy.  You become a viewer and notice things that are not obvious when you are slamming on deadline.  If you are on air talent, you will see hand or facial gestures that are difficult to watch.  Play with your pen on set perhaps?  Slouch during live shots?  Chances are no one around will let you know if you do these things.  Often in news, you can be fired for poor performance without ever being told to change simple fixable things.

Newsrooms are short staffed and disorganized.  Most managers do not sit down and write notes about the newscasts regularly.  Usually they only watch a newscast or reporter consistently just before the annual review writing period.  So you are getting critiques once a year based on very little viewing of your work.  Many shops have given up post-newscast meetings so you don’t get daily critiques of your work.  If you want to get better, you have to do it yourself.  Watching your own work is a great way to do this. 

So what should you look for when watching your own work?  As mentioned above, look for overused phrases, and strange gestures.  If you are a photojournalist, do you mix up shots enough?  Too many cover shots?  Is your pacing good?  Reporters, do you always start nats/copy/bite/bite/copy/nats?  You might notice that you need to mix it up a little.  Producers, are you using the same techniques too often?  Things like plays on words and nat sound in teases so often that they are predictable?  Everyone needs to look at use of nat sound.  Remember, you write for the ear.  Listen to your work with your eyes shut.  Does it make sense?  Anchors, do you read stories the same way all the time?  Do your facial gestures change based on tone of the story?  As you watch for these things you will pick up on other ways to improve your work.

This is where critiquing your work can help you change your career.  Most of us have a dream place where we want to work.  Watch newscasts from that station online, then try and tailor some of your work to that place.  If you can alter your style to fit in with a certain station you can get a leg up when a job comes open.  Remember, you just need enough for a killer video resume.  By self-critiquing, you are able to see how to adjust your style.  You figure out what your best techniques are and then you play them up to your advantage.

 

“Rule The Word.” Write Killer Copy.

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.