Monday, November 05, 2007

Brass Tack #5 - Tell the story simply

‘The news’ may present itself as a reliable and factual account of what is happening out there in the ‘real world’. However, news items tend to be short pieces of information that are easy to consume and understand and it is clearly impossible for such an item to reproduce ‘reality’ with all its complexities, contexts and interpretative nuances.

Therefore, what the news actually does is to tell isolated, fragmented stories of events that have happened / are happening and then leaves it to its readers, viewers and listeners to make sense of it, discuss it or ignore it.

This means that if you want your story to become news, you must find a simple way of telling it. To achieve this, one piece of advice that is most frequently given is to ensure that the story provides answers to the five W questions: What’s happening? Who’s involved? Where? When? and Why? (Other accounts also slip in an H for How?)

In theory, this means it is possible to tell the story in one or two sentences:

What happened?) A toddler was rescued from a well (Who?) by a passing dog walker (Where?) in the grounds of Hockley Hall
(When?) last night (Why?) after a game of hide-and-seek
went drastically wrong.

Clearly, in this example, more details are needed to ‘flesh out’ the story from these ‘bare bones’ – but that’s how news stories work. While a detective story writer might leave it to the last page before revealing ‘whodunnit’, a journalist often starts with the punch line and then fills out the story with detail, context, background, quotes, with each paragraph providing more and more redundant information. If you don’t believe me, ask Walter Cronkite.

This isn’t because journalists are backward-thinking people. It’s to make life easy for sub-editors who may want to reduce a 200-word story to 175 words to fit the space on the page. Rather than re-write the story, all they have to do is lop off the last couple of paragraphs and the story will still make sense.

There’s a further practical benefit for a press release that can get the 5Ws across in the first sentence or two before ‘filling out’ the story: it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to impress the editor that here’s a story worth covering.

A good press release works in much the same way as a good CV. It shouldn’t be more than two sides of A4 and if it fails to impress in the top half of the first side, the rest of it won’t get read.



Filed under:
media relations       news narrative      press release     Walter Cronkite      journalists

16 comments:

Sherrilynne said...

This post made Jo's Top 5 this week.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

A very interesting posting Pete!

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