Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The figure of 8: simplify your storytelling

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 20, 2009

Teaching my class on Video & Photo Journalism at Kingston University last week, I introduced my students to the concept of the Figure of Eight.

It’s a handy storytelling tool I was taught when I trained to be a journalist, and I’ve always kept it in mind when I need to put a story together in a rush. It is a tool for broadcast journalists, but applies to newspaper journalists working with video too.

The Print Way

Newspaper journalists are usually told to arrange their facts in the paradigm of the inverted pyramid, still regarded as the best way to display text information. You put all the important information right at the top and work your way down from there.

It was invented around the time of the telegraph message, when you had limited space to get lots of information down.

Many newspaper journalists make the mistake of trying to fit this way of sorting information into their video and audio. It doesn’t work. Why? Because multimedia exists differently.

The ‘Broadcast’ Way

Television & Radio – and now video & audio are temporal media. They exist in time. We don’t talk about TV news reports in terms of word counts. We talk about them in terms of time. Time is a tricky dimension because it means all your information has to be laid out in a linear fashion, and usually your audience has only one chance to watch your piece.

Compare that to newspapers, where the reader can skip ahead, or re-read bits they didn’t understand.

Because of it’s unique time-governed nature, broadcast journalists developed a new framework for organising their facts: introducing the Figure of Eight.

The Figure of Eight

figureof8

Broken down it simply means this:

  1. Start your multimedia piece in the present: what’s just happened? What’s the latest?
  2. Then take them backwards and tell them the past: what’s the context? How did we get here? What’s already happened?
  3. Then, finally, loop back over and tell them the future: what’s going to happen next?

This method ticks all the boxes for getting your facts out: it gives them the who-what-where-when-why, fills in the context, and gives us an idea of what it all means by suggesting what will happen next.

A Classic Example

Say you’re producing a video piece about a court case, for which the verdict has just been announced. You start your piece by saying what’s just happened:

Joe Bloggs has been found guilty of killing his wife in a domestic row. After a trial which has gripped the country, the father of three walked into the dock just an hour ago to hear his fate…etc…

Then you tell us the background – take us back to the history of the story.

This tragic case started a year ago when police were called to the Bloggs family home in London.  They found Jane Bloggs dead with a knife in her chest. After a man hunt lasting three months, her husband Joe was arrested in April…etc…

Then to finish off – a quick line on what’ll happen next.

Bloggs will return to the Old Bailey tomorrow where he’ll be sentenced. The Judge has warned him to expect a long jail term…etc.

That way, we’ve covered the bones of the story, in a logical fashion.

It’s a great technique for two reasons: it organises the information for you so you don’t have to; and it is perfect for a temporal medium like video.

…wait! There’s more!

If you found my 6×6 series for multimedia journalists useful, from Monday you’ll be able to download it all in one handy (free) ebook. More details on the way!

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  1. […] Alexandre Gamela shared The figure of 8: simplify your storytelling. […]

  2. […] where I first learned about the Five Boxes method, and here’s where I got the Figure of Eight method; you might like to read these as well. Photo by Flickr user Max […]

  3. Allison Taylor said, on June 10, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    very interesting and useful!!

  4. […] then adding less vital information as the story goes down. In broadcast, journalists often use a ‘figure-of-eight’ pattern to achieve the same effect. Both of these formulas are about giving the audience the big facts […]

  5. […] week will be focused on developing your profile stories. On Tuesday, we’ll discuss a few different ways to think about the organization of your story — and yes, we’ll finally […]


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