Secrets of storytelling

Have you heard someone drone on and on?
They love their story and tell it again and again.
All of us want to be good storytellers, orally and in print.
If you retell a story, give it a fresh slant.
Share new lessons the experience taught you.
Make the lessons ones that will benefit your audience.

Here are tips from experts, courtesy of Elizabeth Bernstein.
Elizabeth writes for the Wall Street Journal.

  1. Make a point.
    This why you tell stories.
    You don’t have to state it but keep it in mind.
    I tell the story of how we started our 1st newspaper.
    The facts are the same but the way I tell it differs.
    And I draw different points in each telling.

2. Open dramatically.
You need a “James Bond opening.”
One of my favorites is one Charlie Farrell tells.
Charlie was a Marine fighter pilot.
His story is about his 1st landing on a carrier at sea.
The carrier deck looked like a postage stamp from above.
It is a white knuckle run.
Charlie makes you feel what he felt.

Paul Zak, who studies the neurobiology of storytelling, says:
• You must have reasons for us to want to read or listen.
• An exciting opening produces dopamine in our brains.
That helps to focus our readers’ attention.

3. Put flesh on your characters.
What are the people in your story like?
How did they act, feel and look?
Make readers care about your characters
Their brains will produce oxytocin, the bonding hormone.

4. Build tension.
Deepen your story. Create cliffhangers and surprise.
These give a reason to care about your characters.
It will engage them with your story.
When they are emotionally engaged, they bond with you.

5. Make personal disclosures.
Research shows that self-disclosure helps people bond.
But don’t exaggerate. It kills credibility.
You can make yourself the butt of the story.
Readers love those of us willing to show our vulnerability.

Final tip: If you’re retelling a story, admit it.
Research shows repetition makes you look inauthentic.
But if you admit it, it seems to make it all right.
Write or say, “One of my favorite stories is…”

Show rather than tell

Good morning,
Here we are again, thinking about improving our writing.
Today’s topic is geared to feature writing although it will work in news stories, too.

We talk a lot about storytelling in writing.
What we really mean is “Show your readers – don’t just tell them.”

Most of us are aware that it is more convincing to show something through action, behavior or dialogue than it is just to tell it.
Our ability and effort to show may determine if our readers think our story is realistic and that we are credible as storytellers.

This applies more to feature writing than traditional news reporting.
Yet it can be useful in both.

Here are 3 hints:

  1. Describe scenes with real people taking action or talking with each other.
    Let your readers hear what you hear and how you heard it – not only what they said but how they said it. Let them hear the noise of cities and the quiet of mountains and forests, the music of surf and wind.
  2. Let the reader experience what took place and how it made you feel.
    Take them inside the scene and inside yourself.
  3. Use concrete detail.
    Describe what happened as you saw it.

Relate strange places and people to places and people you and your readers both may know.
For example, show them an elderly man who “looked like Winston Churchill.”
Describe sunrise over a peak “like the Blue Ridge mountains.”

Bring your readers into the scene with you.
Think and write as if you were setting a scene in a work of fiction.

A fine reporter, Roger Beirne, was troubled after interviewing the mother of her son killed in combat.
His account told simply what he saw, the neighborhood where the family lived, the look of the house where the boy grewn up, how his mother appeared when she came to the door, what she told him about her son. It was a moving account.
Roger did not need to hype it up. He simply showed what took place.

During the Nazi bombing of London in 1940, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote:
They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night. Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead.
In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.

Australian journalist Helen Garner opens her account of a murder-suicide:
It happened in broad daylight one April afternoon in 2015, while the ciitizens of Melbourne were peaceably going about their business.
A chef on her way to get a tattoo, was driving past Lake Gladman, a reedy, rock-edged wetland, when the blue Toyota SUV in front of her suddenly pulled off and stopped. As the chef drove by, she caught a glimpse of an African woman sitting huddled over the steering wheel with her face in her hands. Kids behind her were rioting. A little one was thrashing in his booster, a bigger one dangling off the back of the driver’s seat.
Minutes later, a passing teacher saw the Toyota “drive full bolt straight into the water.”

These highly dramatic examples show what is possible.
Your story may not be as dramatic as these.
Yet similar human energy is there in most stories.

Here is an example from our newspaper:
It all began with a phone call Chapin Town Councilman Al Koon made on Monday, June 25, to his friend Paul Kirby.
Kirby is editor and publisher of the online Lexington Ledger and a former firefighter and correspondent for the Chronicle.
“Al called me about noon to chat as we often do,” Paul said. “It was unusual for him to call me mid-day as we normally talk in the morning or when I am driving home.
“When Al’s speech changed as we talked, it did so quickly and dramatically. He was completely unintelligible and it was clear that something was very wrong.”

Try it in your next story,
Make us see, hear, even smell and feel what you are experiencing.

Writing Tip: Memorable thank you notes

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

This week’s tip will be unusual 
but appropriate for the 
winter gift-giving season.

Some of our friends put me
to shame. They are ardent
thank-you note writers.
They don’t write by email or
anything looking like a form letter.
Their notes are hand written and
ring of personal authenticity.

I suspect you will need to write
several such notes this month.
This is an almost lost art.
Here are a few tips to help.
At the end of this tip you will find
a masterfully-written example.

1. Use no fancy words. 
You’re not trying to impress. 
Write the way you speak. 
That’s the real you.

2. Write them by hand.
Make sure they are legible. 
No chicken scratching.

3. Be specific. 
Say what you are grateful for.
Use such words as:
Thank you for the …
I am grateful for …
I appreciate the …

4. Tell how they made you feel. 
A few examples:
• You made me feel like part of 
your family during our visit.
• Thanks for sharing your delicious 
cheesecake recipe. It will make me
the envy of all my friends.

5. Close with an old-fashion hug. 
Write something like this:
• Affectionately (and your name)
• Love from your best friend ….
• Fondly as always …

I promised you an example. 
Here’s a small masterpiece of thanks 
as well as of apology. 
It was written by the late President Bush
to a military mother.

Dear Mrs. McGrath, 
Your thoughtful son, Bryan, wrote me a very nice letter 
about you and it appears that I owe you an apology. 
Bryan tells me that during the Gulf War 
when he was serving on the USS Thomas S. Gates,
you wrote me a letter of support which was never acknowledged. 

Belated though this is, I want to, first, apologize for not having written 
to thank you for your letter. I have boundless respect
for the men and women of our Armed Forces.
I was so proud of their professionalism and commitment to duty. 
You must be so proud of your Navy son. 
As a former Navy man myself, I share your pride.

I hope you forgive me, Mrs. McGrath, for not having written sooner. 
Just know that this former Commander-in-Chief, now a happy private citizen, appreciates your family’s patriotism and support.
Sincerely, George Bush

Your thank you letters do not have to be
as eloquent as the late President was.
But they should be simple and sincere. 
They should come from your heart.
Write the kind of thank you notes 
that you would want to receive.

All of us at the Chronicle wish you a memorable holiday.

PS. Our publisher has advised that we are 
burdening our readers and our colleagues 
with too many weekly writing tips. 
Realizing the learning curve is steep, 
I will give you a break between tips 
to let you catch your breath.

This will be your last writing tip in December. 
Watch for your next one in January.

PPS. If you have not yet ordered your copy of 
“Maverick Entrepreneurs’ Million Dollar Strategies,”
now is the time to do it. 
The books make great Christmas or New Year gifts 
for clients, colleagues and friends in business. 
They are a modest $20 each.

The books are to arrive from the printer this week. 
Get your order in by credit card and I will personally
autograph it and pay the $3.95 postage. 
Just call Katie or me at 803-359-7633.

What we can learn from weather forecasters

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

This may sound like a weird formula for
successful writing and communication but
think about what TV weather forecasters do:

In a 90-second forecast they:
1. Explain what will happen.
2. Compare it to what has happened.
3. Advise what you can do about it.
4. Use visual aids to help them.

90 seconds isn’t a lot of time.
It’s 225 words to the rest of us
That’s 9″ of type in many newspapers.
It’s 75% of a written letter page.
It’s 9 times longer than a classified ad.
And a classified ad must sell something.

TV forecasters know they talk to:
1. General viewers who don’t want much.
Will it be hot, cold or rainy tomorrow?
That’s all they’re interested in.
2. Weather freaks who want everything.
They are addicted to it.
3. Fellow experts and climatologists.
These people know if they fake it.
They must satisfy all 3 groups.

Let’s apply that to what we do.

Our readers are the ones who:
1. Want to know what happened.
How does it affect my life?
What should I do if it does?
2. Are news junkies.
They are addicted to news.
They read us cover to cover.
3. Those in the story.
They know what happened.
Or they think they do.
They are checking our accuracy.

Here’s a checklist you might
post beside your computer:

1. How does what I’m writing
affect or interest my readers?
Does it affect their taxes or costs?
Does it affect their family?
Does it affect their well being?

2. How does it affect those involved?
And what can they do about it?

3. Is it factually accurate?
Did we quote sources right?
If we paraphrase what they said,
does it reflect what they meant?

4, How can we illustrate this
with photos, maps, charts, etc.?
Will this improve our readers’
understanding or interest?

You will find tips like this
and others in our new
“Little Red Book of
Compelling Writing.”

Send me 75 to 100 words
about the value of these tips
and we will include them
in the book next spring.

Writing tip: Tell it to Mom

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

4 words can make a huge difference.
When you write, do it like …
… you’re telling it to Mom.

One of our writers had a good story.
She just wasn’t sure how to present it.
She had spent two hours with owners of:
• A “perfectly” restored 218-year-old house.
• 3,000 square foot barn converted to a home.

As her editor, my advice was simple.
Write as if you were telling it to Mom.

Many of us have writing problems.
Me, too, and after all these years.
Writing conversationally is the key.

As fact gatherers, we write like fact gatherers.
The fire that killed 5 comes across as cold.
It reads like a government report.
It needs to be, pardon the expression, warmed up.
It need to be about the lost people, not just the fire.

Some years ago, my son and I visited a friend.
George James had worked with me earlier.
George was a fine writer who cared about people.
He was working at the time as a crime reporter.

He filed a story about a fire with his editors at the NY Times.
The Times prides itself on being a newspaper of record.
It falls a bit short about being a newspaper about people.

George had just written an account of a fire that killed 5 people.
He showed us a printout he sent to the city desk.
It read like a police incident report.
Its 47 words contained who, what, when, where and how.

“George,” I said, “this doesn’t read like your work.”
He nodded and produced another printout
“Here’s what I originally sent,” he said.

It began: “Samuel ___ collected people and furniture.”
It talk about the owner of the building.
It told who else lived and died there.
George had talked with neighbors.
He found the owner furnished it with Salvation Army stuff.
He rented to people who could not afford to pay him.
They weren’t evicted. Samuel ___ had a heart.

The version the city desk rejected was a human story.
We asked George why he would work for such editors.
They obviously had tin ears . . . and no hearts.
“It’s THE New York Times,” he said.
“They usually accept what I write.”
“They pay well, too.”

“Tell it to Mom” is a technique we teach our writers.
It doesn’t have to be a news article.
It could be a sales letter or an advertisement.
The principle applies to whatever you may write.
Make it about people and tell it to Mom.

Think about this:
If you told Mom the story, what would you say?
Would you say “The owner and 4 homeless people were killed in an suspicious apartment house fire in lower Manhattan late Monday night”?
Probably not although that’s what most editors expect.

But you wouldn’t write that if you knew about:
• The big-hearted owner of the building.
• His 4 tenants who could not afford to pay rent.
You might tell Mom something like this:
“Mom, this guy Samuel ___ had a big heart.
“He let people live in his apartment building.
“That was even if they couldn’t pay him rent.
“In a fire last night, he and 4 of them died.”

Tell it to Mom and you can tell it to the world.

Here’s an exercise for you journalists:
Take a news article you have written.
Rewrite it as you would tell it to Mom.
Then boil down the conversational version.
Write short sentences with powerful verbs.
Make Mom see and hear what you saw and heard.

Here another one for you:
Imagine someone from Mars has arrived on earth.
She knows little about us but understands English.
What would she make of your prose?
Could she understand what you writing about?

This helps avoid jargon from police, politicians and others.
They talk in a special code we have learned.
Most of our readers don’t understand it.
Translate. Keep it simple. Help them understand.
By all means, tell it to Mom.

Writing tip – Talk with your readers

Good morning, fellow scribblers.

Your relationship with your readers can be as fragile as friendship.
Think of your readers as friends.
Get to know them, their joys and sorrows.

How do you do that?
They are your neighbors.
People you meet standing in line.
Listen to them wherever you meet them.

My bride sometimes gets frustrated with me.
I will stop and talk with anyone.
I interview servers, clerks, cashiers.
I ask about what they do and if they like doing it.
I ask why they do it.
What they else they might do in their busy lives.

Almost everyone you talk with feels complimented.
Here is someone who even cares to ask about them.
So few people receive appreciation or recognition in life.
Then you come along and show an interest in them.
Of course, they are pleased.

When we started publishing small newspapers, I sold advertising.
My journalistic experience came in handy.
I was used to interviewing people.
I started interviewing advertising prospects.
“How did you get into this business?” I would ask.
They were good for at least 20 minutes on this.
The next question was, “What do you love about it?”

Small town editors sit on the cutting edge.
Anyone can walk into their office or call them.
If they are smart, they are receptive to this.
That’s how you find out what’s on their minds.
It’s how you find out what people are talking about.
What matters to them. Plus the latest gossip.

Big city editors are protected by security guards and assistants.
They live in gated suburban communities far from readers.
They send their kids to private schools.
They associate with others like themselves.
They have become elites with little notion of their readers’ lives.

Living in a small town is like living in a fishbowl.
As an editor, people watch what I do.
It keeps me honest.
It also tells me what no pollster could ever know.
My readers are in my mind when I write.
What will each story mean to them?
How I can tell it to be clear to them, relate to them.
Storytelling and journalism come together.

Talk with, not at, your readers.
Help them see what you see.
Help them hear what you hear.
Help them feel what you feel.

Here is an example of what I mean:

Imagine you are a long-haul trucker hundreds of miles from home.
Bleary-eyed, you pull into a truck stop.
You need a break, coffee and something to eat.
Rested you return to your rig.
An attractive young woman walks up and makes you an offer.
Chances are she didn’t do it because you’re a hunk.
She’s being human trafficked by a pimp sitting in a nearby car.
He lives on the illegal dollars she brings him.

You get the idea. Try it yourself.

Have a writing problem you struggle with?
Please let me know. We’ll solve it together.