Why Storytelling Matters

Storytelling is how we make sense of our lives. In fact, our brains are hungry for stories.

Today social media makes it easier than ever for us to save, share and enjoy stories. Storytelling is in everything from tattoos to hip-hop. Yet it is rare to find powerful storytelling in television and radio newscasts.

"To hell with facts! We need stories!"- Ken Kesey

The ratings company Nielsen concluded we crave a personal connection with the way we gather information. We remember stories better than facts because our brains perceive little distinction between the story we are told and something that is actually happening. Advertisers understand this. We're engaged by the storytelling in the Budweiser Clydesdale commercials and that builds an emotional bond between us and the beer. It's said we spend half our waking hours creating little stories as we daydream. Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal said, "We daydream about the past: things we should have said or done, working through our victories and failures. We daydream about mundane stuff such as imagining different ways of handling conflict at work. But we also daydream in a much more intense, story-like way. We screen films with happy endings in our minds, where all our wishes - vain, aggressive, dirty - come true. And we screen little horror films, too, in which our worst fears are realized."

"Whatever story you're telling, it will be more interesting if, at the end you add, "and then everything burst into flames."- Brian P. Cleary, You Oughta Know By Now

If stories are an essential part of our human fabric why is it so unusual to find them in a typical newscast? That's what I want to explore. I believe the opportunities are there to use the simple elements of plot, characters and a narrative point of view to tell engaging stories to news listeners and viewers and not only respect, but excell at the craft of good journalism.

"Whoever tells the best story shapes the culture."- Erwin Raphael McManus

Can Good Journalists Afford To Be Storytellers?

It's been a given that journalists need to be storytellers. Good storytelling allows viewers and listeners to care about a story - and to want more.

The danger for the journalist is storytellers often wind up at the center of the story. And who can deny how tempting it is to add a few embellishments when sharing a story among friends?

It appears Brian Williams found the temptation irresistible, especially in settings away from the Nightly News anchor desk. But Al Tompkins, who's on the faculty of the Poynter Institute, suggests if Williams had stuck to telling stories about others and not himself he would not be in the mess he's in today.

We want to capture our audience with our storytelling. But in news, we first need to check our facts. Then we can present those facts with all our storytelling skills, provided we do so fairly and in context.

There's an important role for great storytelling, but we must stay more concerned with the truth than entertainment.

How to Get On the Right Track With Good Storytelling

The founder of GoPro, Nicholas Woodman told an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show that his tiny video cameras are much more than just hardware.

GoPros have been used to create millions of stunning video stories and have turned Woodman's company from a hardware manufacturer into a multi-billion dollar media company.

Why? Because a GoPro satisfies the basic need people have to tell their stories. "The day that people stop sharing stories, we've got a problem, but I don't think that is going to happen anytime soon.

Look at this list from the blog Longreads. All of them are powerful storytelling that build an emotional connection with you.

Storytelling can even give you a fresh view of controversial story such as this one on Michael Brown Sr., the father of the teenager shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. No stranger to controversy, author Salman Rushdie said, ""A good story is one that makes you want to listen. The art of telling a story is keeping an audience sitting there and from throwing things at you."

We've Been Missing You in the News

The typical news story tends to be a collection of facts about an event punctuated with official comment.

No matter how well these facts are stacked or organized they will always fall short of good storytelling because you're never given the opportunity to form an emotional connection with the people in the story.

The components of a story are simple. First you set the scene. Think of the classic scene-setter, "Once upon a time" from fairy tales. Then you tell the listener who the story is about and help them build an emotional connection. This allows them to see themselves as part of the story. Next add tension or conflict. Finally you resolve the conflict by giving it relevance to the listener.

In news radio you are more likely to make an emotional connection and hear the word "you" in commercials than in the news stories. It's a missed opportunity. Marketers are way ahead of many journalists in understanding Why People Love a Good Story and How to Tell Yours. Here's another approach sharing the 7 Secrets of Highly Effective Storytelling.

Will Serial Bring Back Storytelling From the Golden Age of Radio?

It seemed everyone was listening to the first season of Serial, the top-rated podcast on iTunes that re-examines the 16 year old murder of a Baltimore high school student.

The marriage of episodic storytelling with the binge-listening-friendly podcast led many pundits to proclaim 2014 as the "Year of the Podcast." Even traditional broadcasters are trying to package their content as podcasts to appeal to Millennials happy to feast on an entire season in one sitting on Netflix.

Even with a less than satisfying ending, the first season of Serial clearly shows the appeal of storytelling techniques that have long been used in print.

You might get an argument from today's broadcast news programmer that it is extremely difficult to create on-air appointment listening. Which is why many of the attempts will be podcasts.

But traditional broadcasters need to accept that good storytelling is something their listeners will not only crave, but demand.

Talking About Storytelling

"It's all storytelling, you know. That's what journalism is all about." -- Tom Brokaw

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” -- Rudyard Kipling

"You're never going to kill storytelling, because it's built into the human plan. We come with it." -- Margaret Atwood

"Too many brands treat social media as a one way, broadcast channel, rather than a two-way dialogue through which emotional storytelling can be transferred." -- Simon Mainwaring