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only good storytellers. So what makes a good storyteller?  What makes ONE story memorable? 

What will make YOUR story the one everyone talks about?  Any story—whether a work of fiction or a package on a newscast—is a result of choices made by the writer.  In this case the writer is you, the reporter.  Let’s look at the choices facing you when you produce a story and how those choices can make or break you as a storyteller.

Choice #1—Topic

The topic has to IMPACT or INTEREST your audience—not you—your audience.  Otherwise, don’t do it!  Finding and recognizing a good topic is a whole “chapter” in itself, but here are a few tips.  Anytime people are in conversation they’re talking about SOMETHING.  If it causes people to talk, there’s a story.  Anytime people laugh, there’s a story.  When someone says, “WHAT??”, there’s a story.  Look for story topics in times of the day and specific places.  Ask why.  Ask what if.  Look for the story in these things and look beyond what anyone else would see.  Look for what will IMPACT  or INTEREST your audience.  Then pitch it to your director or teacher—pitch it with a curve someone else isn’t throwing and you’ve got a good topic.

Choice #2—Faces

Put a face on your story.  Whether you’re telling about an event or issue, tell it from the perspective of a person who is involved or affected by the topic.  Don’t choose the most available person.  Don’t choose the most obvious person.  That’s what everyone else is doing.  Choose someone who has expertise, experience or expression.   Expertise –choose a person who can give expert information.  Experience—choose a person who has lived what your story is about.  Expression—look for the person who has a unique way of wording comments …or a face that speaks volumes….or emotion that grabs the viewer. 

Choice #3—Interview

Hey, it’s more than just asking questions! 

Choose a location that contributes to the storytelling.  Interview in a location visually connected to the story and/or one in which the person is most comfortable.  Both aspects are important and a cinderblock wall in a hallway rarely meets either criteria.

Don’t rush it.  Allow plenty of time for the person to relax and get comfortable with you as a person.  That person that you chose as the face of your story is going to have a conversation with you—not a brief encounter.  You’re going to let that person relate experiences, reveal emotions—people don’t do this in 10 words or less. 

An interview is not just asking questions, but it IS asking questions.  Choose to begin with small talk questions that might not even be related to the topic.  Certainly avoid any early questions that might make the person nervous.  NEVER ASK THE PERSON TO RESTATE THE QUESTION IN THE ANSWER.  This takes away all their spontaneity.  Ask them to tell you how it happened (first person narrative full of good sound).  Ask for opinion, prediction….and then don’t ask anything…just be quiet and wait.  Silence is actually a good “question” because it often prompts a good “answer”.  Silence is like saying, “I’m thinking about what you just said.”  Most people will fill the silence by giving you more information.

The last tip for interviewing is to pay attention in advance to production values.  Check the lighting and sound.  The best location with the best face can be ruined by bright sunlight casting bad shadows or by traffic noise drowning out the voice.  You have to handle these BEFORE the interview starts.

Choice #4—B-roll

B-roll is the footage that allows the viewer to SEE what the people are talking about.  The photog (photographer or cameraman) is responsible for shooting b-roll.  He/she must know what the topic is and listen carefully to the interview to know what to shoot that will complement what is said.
Shoot action.  Whatever action is being discussed should be seen if at all possible.  Most obvious example:  if the story is about an athlete, the viewer should see the athlete in action on the field/floor/track.  If the story is about someone saving a life, the action we see might be a demo of how it was done.  But shoot action—not just still life.  SIDEBAR:  CAPTURE ACTION—DON’T’ CREATE IT. NOTICE I DIDN’T SAY THAT YOU SHOULD MOVE THE CAMERA AND THUS CREATE ACTION.  FOR MOST PART, KEEP THE CAMERA STILL, PREFERABLY ON A TRIPOD WITH VERY LIMITED PANNING AND ZOOMING, AND LET THE ACTION HAPPEN WITHIN THE FRAME.

Shoot sound.  Too many shooters forget there is sound associated with action, places, and people.  Practice hearing and capturing natural sound.  It will become punctuation for the story.  Total silence behind a reporter’s voice is artificial.  Sound happens.  Use that to your advantage. With careful placement of b-roll, the slamming of a jail door provides the perfect exclamation mark at the end of the reporter’s statement about an arrest.

Shoot for representation.  Sometimes symbols are needed for concepts in the story.  What item can convey that a child died in last night’s fire?  The charred toys in the yard.   What scene can convey the beginning of baseball season?  A player lacing up his cleats.  That’s representational b-roll.

Shoot with variety.  Don’t shoot all long wide shots or all at eye level.  Vary your angle and shot length.  WALLDO is an acronym for basic camera shots.  If you need help with variety, Google WALLDO for an explanation.  Use objects to frame your shot.  Use the foreground.  Be just creative enough to avoid boring but not so much as to steal attention from the topic. 

These first four choices allow the reporter and the photographer to choose the building materials for the story.  The material produced by these choices will be going back to the station (or the classroom) and it will be what you have to work with.  Master builders choose their materials wisely.  Shoddy materials yield shoddy product.  It’s true with storytellers as well.  A good storyteller starts with good material….by making good choices in TOPIC, FACES, INTERVIEWS, and B-ROLL.

Coming next month:   Choices as you script and edit your package.

If the same raw material is given to three reporters, the director will get three different versions of the same story.  Why?  Because the reporters make different choices in scripting and editing.   And for you teacher-readers, I’ll give some techniques for helping your students to choose and assemble the BEST soundbites with the BEST reporter track!


Kerby00Janet Kerby is a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education specializing in broadcast journalism. Janet’s extensive teaching experience and award-winning program at Roane County High School in West Virginia provide the background for her current work in teacher training.   Janet has developed an online graduate course Teaching Broadcast Journalism and is currently teaching that course as part of Kent State University’s online Master of Arts Degree–Journalism Educator Specialization.