How to become an award winning news storyteller?
I was training in Russia when I took the above photo. It summed up everything about the joy of learning and discovery as the delegates were prepping for presentations. I feel that way more times than I can think when I discover something new.
I’m a lecturer an entrepreneur/journalist and storyteller who’s previously worked for the BBC, Channel 4 News and an ex-Saatchi head and wanted to share with you one of my decks I frequently use in training Masters students and professionals.
Over the years, I’ve honed various decks with an emphasis on behavioural theory and mind science whilst incorporating new research. So while the title and content is specific, the knowledge underpinning it is transferable. Hence by changing the content it could yield similar results for you. See what you think?
Time to present.
I learnt an invaluable lesson once presenting in Norway in 2006. I made unnecessary assumptions about my content and the audience. Unless you’re a celebrity and relatively few of us are, people aren’t interested in you as much as the quality of the ideas and storytelling that will engage them directly and help them. However they do form subliminal opinions. More of that in another post.
Consulting with a conference producer who will know her/his audience is one of the first tasks. This allows me to systems think through the presentation — that is how the ideas flow, interact with each other. How patterns emerge that will aid the presentation becoming memorable and historical contexts that provide a grounding for the idea.
And, what’s wanted from the presentation? If it’s selling your product, an idea, or consultancy, which in many cases it is, how do you do this without it being a pitch about self-aggrandisement and potentially turning off the audience.
The title of the presentation is key: How to become an award winning news storyteller?
Test the headline on various sentiment analysers and colleagues to gain insight into its general reception. I’m using Coschedule.com which gives the headline a positive sentiment around 74 out of 100 — not bad!
The question is explicit, aspirational and plausible drawing general curiosity. Who wouldn’t want to become an award winning storyteller? To help along the proposal I’ll reference exemplars I’ve researched and consider appropriate for the audience. Take these two films at the moment: For Sama and The Great Hack. Great films in different styles but underpinned by a common thread which isn’t apparent at first. It’ll become obvious as I proceed. I’ll use both films to engage the audience with stories about the films or the filmmakers.
For instance I bumped into For Sama’s director Waad al-Kateab and shared my experience training young Syrian filmmakers near the border in news making. They were concerned no one was interested in news from the region any longer. Waad happened to know a few of them. Her story has generated huge interest.
I then shift the emphasis from how to why, drawing in the personal characterisation — something that’s relatable to the audience. The young woman, Nasma in the photo is one of my former MA students whose own story is amazing. We’re in a storytelling economy, I tell attendants. Everyone can tell their story. There are new voices to be heard and should be heard. Waad was one of them too, but how do you stand out and what do you have that might inspire others?
The next three slides can be grouped future thinking. The world unfolding; what’s happening on the horizon? How are new story forms, the content, and the authors gaining traction and winning over audiences? And how are traditional forms competing to stay relevant? There’s ample anecdotal stories of the latter. For instance television news viewing has significantly declined in the last 25 years and it’s not just down to new tech. I’ll quote references to support this.
And then there’s myth puncturing about the future. It’s where a proposition appears to have cracked the future when it really hasn’t. Twenty Twenty hindsight tends to bear this out, but it requires some distancing. You may be a fan, or active participant in telling stories with your mobile, but in spite of its newness and ubiquity, mobile has not created new styles of forms or levels of intimacy. I show a brief experiment to support this (you can find it here). It’s not the tech per se, but the culture forming habits around people taking to the tech. There’s continual evidence of changes to capturing devices, but the shape and style of the content is what we’ll revisit.
By now there’s a trend developing in the slides which subconsciously you may not have picked up. The photos have an aesthetic photojournalistic edge capable of transmitting concepts that are symbolic. Above, a mystical shot of low level clouds from Perugia’s horizon symbolises “new”. The tone and glare of the mobile feeds into innovation.
Whilst it’s known for a while how fast we process visual data more than texts, research also points to the affect of images inducing behaviour. The slides are prompters not designed to compete with your attention, so the texts is easily digested and one line. I’m aware in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon, slides are information banks and should carry more information.
The following slides point towards active participants (new characters) seeking to become part of this future. Ideas are rarely solitary, because unless they promise a radical paradigmatic change, more often than not someone somewhere is seeking the same, or similar approach. Hence within traditional outfits like the BBC, they are now openly searching for new story forms. The producer below Hannah is part of the BBC’s Social media team producing social news videos. The more well known the outfit you can associate similar, but not directly the idea, the more it gives currency to your proposal. The same with YouTube. As a platform it’s been an experimental playground for storytellers to establish a style to gain audiences.
Then comes a shift to the central question, a framing exercise in an attempt to get into this mini-mystery. In other words, the inciting incident, which unifies For Salma, what Nasma has achieved, and questions about the BBC and platforms. What are these styles in news storytelling? Generally, we just refer to them as, well, news, but something much deeper is going on. Just to emphasise this and crystallise memory, I draw an analogy to the below image. Here I’m diving in deep waters in Gallipoli as part of a military team searching for a famous WWI wreck, HMS Majestic. The story will play on the world service.
The “what if” introduces the paradigm answer, the one me/ you’ve been presented — a possible equilibrium to uncertainty. It requests attention as it’s something of a leap of faith and left field. For that reason, it’ll be spun out three times as an alliteration. What if cinema directors produced factual programmes? What if directors produced news? What if someone like Spielberg who directed The Post was a journalist? Spielberg has spoken about the fact if he had not become a filmmaker he would have wanted to have become a journalist. His films too illustrate his interest in factual documentation. In Schindler’s List, Spielberg was writing and shooting scripts on the day.
Then the reveal! The idea of Hollywood cinema directors producing news though isn’t new. This is historical context to support this supposedly strange idea. PhD sand Masters grads might recognise this as a literature review — a deep excoriation of hidden knowledge that demonstrates too that the author knows their onions. I can pull countless examples, but I’ll mention this group from the 1940s. Before the advent of television news when news was acquired by newsreels it played in theatres, the US army and Navy called on five of the US’s best award winning Hollywood producers to make films. Many of their films could be described as propaganda; some of them shot on the day were news stories. If you’ve not seen Five Came Back. Bookmark it on Netflix and do.
We’ve gone through the expositions, the light cliff hanger, the characterisation, we’re nearing a part of wrapping up, but not before, for the first time, your involvement ( mine in this case) beyond presenting plays its part. Two kinds of approaches I find work. The first is a positioning. You’ve seen this many times in films, when you might say as it nears conclusion, “I thought so…” Something hinted earlier on who the main protagonist was — the suggestion that you would play a role came with some clues. The second is validation to support you involvement and the integral role you play.
In the two slides below, there’s the award and a back story. Whilst we’ve just been speaking about cinema directors making cinema journalism films, we’ve rarely spoken about journalists making cinema journalism films. There are several reasons. I explain in the talk. The second slide introduces a meme. It could be anything, but something you own and is part of your internal logic. For me creating films it’s about the RAR principle. “RAR” as a British urban expression is one about surprise. Here, it’s about appearances and representing reality — the philosophers stone. How do you capture a scene in cinema journalism and stay truthful?
Validation seeks to tighten ownership of the idea. Here, Apple provide a platform and on other slides academics have their say, as well as industry figures which I’ll play video e.g. Jon Snow. I speak about what the knowledge can do for you and the complexities as well. We’re wired to think certain ways. What if we could undo those? Whilst there are near universal themes for empathy and knowledge different cultures interpret information differently. In slides below, I’m in China, Egypt, near the Syrian border and Beirut.
It’s that simple then, perhaps is the message. If we could all do cinema journalism, we’d be award winning? Well that depends on an array of factors, but understanding cinema journalism as the first intro slides at the top will give you an understanding of one of the most powerful storytelling models, which transcends fiction. You know this now because of Five Came Back. I know this because new entrants have tested this. But here then is another cliffhanger worthy of a part two, the story where you thought it had an ending only to find an alt ending.
In the new story economy, with the advent of A.I. 5G, Extended Reality and Data, cinema still reigns. Its fictional forms still commands we pay good money to see. Data might inform, but good cinema inspires. By understanding how to work factual scenes, we come closer to providing the audience with more immersive experiences. This is not about the equipment per se, but like a director, I might use an array of different tools to enable me to capture and relay a point. Having A.I. determine how a commercial gets put together is indicative of the challenges ahead.
Fresh styles, and ones resurfacing will challenge orthodox thought, but we must be mindful, personalisation and different voices will work harder to extract different and or deeper meaning. Cinema is not a one size fits all but an understanding of how meaning making can be derived in various ways from the juxtaposition of scenes, characterisation, showing and not always telling, plot, how memory works, the use of self conscious cinema essay styles in For Sama, or news films that employ circular narratives.
The effect of this whole presentation in itself is a form of storytelling script seen in cinema.
If you’d like to hear more, I might provide contact points, left on the screen. If it’s a sell this is how I help you aspire to that goal in sight. Either way it was a pleasure sharing a space together.
David is an international award winning producer and speaker and one of the top writers in journalism on @Medium He’s a co-investigator for future of news projects