Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Five simple tricks to spice up your storytelling

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 2, 2010

Storytelling: the most ancient of arts, under appreciated, and often overshadowed by technological advances.

We talk a lot about how a new piece of kit, or smaller camera will make journalism better – but then ignore how to tell the stories in the first place. Storytelling is a science as well as an art with rules and formulas, honed over centuries: every journalist should make it their business to understand the secrets.

A classic (non-journalism) example is James Cameron’s Avatar: celebrated for its use of the latest technology, but undermined by a crap, hackneyed, unoriginal story. Storytelling costs a percentage of what special effects do…but guess where Hollywood spends the big bucks?

The good news for you and me is good storytelling is free if you know how to do it. And sometimes it’s even quick. Next time you’re shooting a video story, audio slideshow, radio piece, interactive — whatever…try one of these simple tricks to make sure your story packs a punch.

Five simple tricks to spice up your storytelling

01. bookend

A classic of the television current affairs documentary but still pretty effective. It simply means returning at the end of your story to where you began. Maybe the same location to see how it’s changed or the same interviewee reflecting on what’s just happened.

It can be more subtle than that: gently bring in the music you opened your piece with to close it; or even bring up the same sound effects or natural sound if that’s what you used. It is a personal favourite of mine: I bookend with music in this audio slideshow about the prison campaigner John Hirst, and bookend with location in this 30 minute documentary about the 2007 UK floods.

Bookending gives the audience a real sense of time passed and reflection.

02. flashbacks

Not every story needs to be told in a linear way, despite the linear nature of the media we work with. Mess around with the chronology of your storytelling.

Sometimes it works really well to start with the powerful climax of the story and then work your audience back to that point through your story. You can use flashbacks literally to show events from the past in real time.

03. share media

Here’s an old rule of storytelling: “show don’t tell” (maybe it should be called story-showing); so start by really listening to whether you are telling a story or showing it. Stuck for a good way to get your subjects to show their stories? Give them the media to do it!

Veteran broadcast journalist Penny Marshall used this to great effect when she gave children in refugee camps in Chad pieces of paper and crayons to draw what they were too distressed to say. Film critic and director Mark Cousins built an entire film around the premise of giving Iraqi children a flip cam.

Just because you have the training doesn’t mean others can’t astound you with their abilities with a simple camera.

04. reflection

It is an accepted wisdom that when we hear someone talking and see them on screen, we see their lips moving. That is using video to document a persons thoughts in its simplest form. But you can mess around with this too.

Once you’ve finished an interview – especially if it has packed emotional punch – just keep filming, stop talking and let your interviewee look into your eyes or the lens. See how long you can get them to hold that look – usually somewhere between 5 and 10 seconds. If you want an example, check out this quickly cut promo by David Dunkley-Gyimah at the Southbank Centre.

Now you have an amazing reflective shot to introduce your interviewee; it gives the impression we are hearing their thoughts not just their words. Powerful indeed.

05. take your character back to their past

The best stories have a central character. Often they tell their story for us in the form of an interview, usually somewhere ‘contemporary’ to them, such as their living room. If they’re talking about a past experience, something is lost in translation.

Make the past live again for your character by returning them to the place where their amazing story took place (within the means of taste and decency of course). Not only will it make your character’s recollection far more vivid, it also gives you more interesting pictures. Click here to see how ESPN took a troubled wrestler back through his dark past – with great effect.

What’s the point of narrative?

Why bother with all this then? Telling a good story is what we’re all about. Your aim as a storyteller is simple: suck ’em in and spit ’em out. You need to hook your audience into your story quickly and ruthlessly, don’t let go for a second (they’ll try to wriggle free); and then spit them out in the other side. If you’ve done your job they’ll sit, astonished, covered in phlegm, trying to comprehend what just happened…but grateful to you for taking them on that journey.

Want more storytelling tips? Have you checked out “6×6 Skills for Next Generation Journalists“? It’s got a special chapter on storytelling.

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Note: Several people have been in touch in the comments in the last week requesting more examples of great multimedia journalism and film making. I’ve tried to provide good examples in this post and will stick as many more up in the future as possible – thanks for your comments!

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“Why don’t we promote the positive?”

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, International Development by Adam Westbrook on May 6, 2007

Here’s a really interesting statistic, you probably didn’t know: 60% of all the people who access the BBC News Africa page via their mobile phones…do so from Nigeria.

Frontline logoIt’s just one of a whole host of interesting points to come out of a debate on how the media cover Africa at London’s Frontline Club this week.

And the big question that came out of it was: “why don’t we promote the positive?

Here’s another fact that proves the point: Zimbabwe has the continent’s worst economy. Inflation was at 1600% last time we all checked. And it get’s argubly the most coverage in the western media, alongside the conflicts in Somalia and Sudan.

And the country with the continent’s best economy? Angola – it’s growing massively. But when was the last time you saw an article on Angola in the western media? Well I’ll help you out a bit: June 16th 2006 was last time a specific article was published in the New York Times.  When was the last time you saw it on a TV news bulletin?

The debate was handed to an audience of journalists working from Africa and they raised some interesting points – here’s a summary:

  • Western media has a “soft touch” with Africa, born out of colonial guilt.
  • Most African newspapers are now online, so there’s no excuse for not knowing what’s going on.
  • Is there an Africa fatigue?
  • Western editors follow the news agenda like a flock of sheep – courageous editors and reporters are needed to break away and cover the uncovered.
  • We are failing because we’re not making African stories interesting to western audiences.
  • Is it time to help normal people in Africa tell their own stories?
  • And the most worrying point: “Nobody cares – editors don’t care.”

And the one thing I’d add to that myself is money. A problem in the eyes of coin counting editors is that it just costs too much to report on Africa. Maybe the answer might come from enterprising young multiskilled journalists going out with cheap kit and reporting it at a lower price? Who knows.
So is all news out of Africa bad news? For the most part yes – but then most news out of anywhere tends to be bad news. I definitely agree with the point that we’re not making it interesting enough and we’re not connecting stories from Africa to our own lives.

And with hundreds of western corporations investing in Africa, we are most definitely having an impact on the shaping of the continent. And not always for good.

There are many journalists and bloggers freelancing in Africa at the moment – I’d be interested to see what they think…

Keep it simple!

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 11, 2007

Training to be a broadcast journalist is a bit like being taught a new language. When it comes to writing, you have to ignore all those rules you learned at school and university and the result is something between C++ and poetry.

One of the golden rules hammered into us is to keep things simple. And keep. Your sentences. Short.  Listeners and viewers can only take in a news report once. Even in the impending “on-demand” world, they’ll only want to take it in once.

So if you turn on the TV and radio you usually hear short sharp conversational sentences with all the fluff removed.

Usually.

Admittedly, Channel 4 News tries to be different. It aims to be a bit more creative, but from what I gathered from chief writer Felicity Spector when she came into City a few weeks ago, it still has to be concise.

So, what on earth is this all about?

It’s a report on the Chinese president’s visit to Africa this week, by the usually excellent Faisal Islam: ex City student and Channel 4 News‘ business correspondent. It’s an interesting piece, but check out Faisal’s first line (watch it here):

“The Chinese presidents twelve day tour takes in eight nations including Sudan the most controversial of the host countries where Chinas unconditional aid policy has angered western governments many of whom say Beijing should use its economic weight to end hostilities in Darfur.”

Say what?

It’s 43 words long. That’s nearly twice the recommended length of any sentence for broadcast.  It could be broken down into no less than four separate sentences:

“It’s a breakneck tour for China’s president: eight countries in a dozen days.

But Hu Jintao’s been criticised for visiting Sudan.

Western leaders want Beijing to use its economic muscle to end violence in Darfur.

Instead in its eagerness for ties with Africa China’s giving aid freely.”

Admittedly that’s not great either. But I think it’s easier to understand, and a bit more conversational.

But it goes to show that even with the best journos working for the best stations, the basic rules sometimes still get broken.

A good start for Ban Ki-Moon

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on January 27, 2007

Three weeks in and the new Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon’s begun his first foreign tour. And he’s chosen Africa as his first stop.

Ban Ki-MoonToday he’s been in Kinshasa, the capital of a country which let’s just say had an eventful 2006. After months of wrangling, violence and uncertainty, elections were held in the D.R. Congo; the country can now justify the “democratic” part of its name.

Incombent Joseph Kabila won convincly with his rival Jean-Pierre Bemba joining the opposition…the country now seems on a more stable tack.

Addressing the Congolese national assembly today, Ban Ki-Moon hailed last years elections as a sign of hope for the country and urged law makers to start a “good governance pact” to see it continue.

After this, the UN Sec-Gen’s heading to the African Union summit in Ethiopia and meeting the not-so-applauded Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir.

A good sign

To visit these countries first is a promising sign. It shows that Ban Ki-Moon’s serious about following his predecessor Kofi Annan’s commitment to peace on the African continent.

It would be easy for the South Korean to put more emphasis on problems closer to home, like the North Korean nuclear missile issue, but he’s made it clear that issue won’t take the spotlight off Africa.

And with Darfur still rumbling on, often without notice, Ban’s come at the right time.

Kofi AnnanBut we can’t get our hopes up too much. Africa was Kofi Annan’s mission too, taking his post in the raw years after the Rwandan genocide. And while victories for peace and progression have come in some places, like Liberia, Sierra Leone and D.R. Congo, Somalia only got worse and now Sudan’s in turmoil.

With so many concerted efforts gaining pace elsewhere to erradicate malaria and tackle HIV, Ban Ki-Moon needs to show he’s not all talk but a leader who can tie these threads together and really make change happen.
He’s got 10 years, starting from now.

Darfur Diaries

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on November 14, 2006

For months many bloggers – myself included – have been banging on about how terrible the Darfur crisis is, and how poorly the international media are covering it. But we’ve all been left in the dust by Aisha Bain, Jen Marlowe and Adam Shapiro, who’ve all gone out and done something about it.

Two years ago, they went to Sudan and Chad to make a film:

“After monitoring the worsening political and humanitarian crisis for months and recognizing that the mainstream media offered marginal and inadequate coverage, the team set out with the goal of providing a platform for the people of Darfur (both those displaced inside Darfur and those living in refugee camps in Chad) to speak for themselves about their experiences, their fears, and their hopes for the future.” Darfur Diaries

It’s now available to buy and there’s a preview on their website. I haven’t got a chance to see it yet so I can’t offer a review, but I think it’s a nobel project.

And if you’re in the mood, check out this week’s From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Online. As well as a piece from Jonah Fisher on the difficulties of reporting from Darfur, there’s also a moving piece by Matthew Price on last week’s events in Beit Hanoun. Price is, in my opinion, one of the best broadcast journalists there is.

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Pronk stays!

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 28, 2006

Brief bit of good news off the back of my previous post. Jan Pronk, the UN’s representative in Sudan has been allowed to stay in Sudan…at least for a little while longer.

He flew back to New York at the start of the week and emerged, according to reports, with Kofi Annan’s full support.

The Sudanese have said they still want him out (as a result of his excellent blog) but have given him until the end of the year to leave, on the understanding his deputy does most of the work.

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A blog worth writing

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 23, 2006

Jan Pronk - screenshot

It’s been known for blogs to get you into trouble. There was that office worker who bitched about her colleagues online, all very funny and all, until of course, her boss found out.  And then that air hostess who posted saucy photos of herself aboard planes, and lost her job.

This time it’s happened to Jan Pronk, the UN envoy in Sudan. On his blog, he’s been writing exceptionally detailed accounts of the work of the peacekeeping mission, and the frustrations of trying to get rebel groups and government officials round a table.

In a mass meeting with them [rebel groups]- I counted about three hundred military commanders and political officials – they promised not to attack the Sudanese Armed Forces. They declared that they would defend themselves, if attacked, but promised to stop attacking. I demanded more: stop considering AMIS, the African Union Peace Keeping Force, as you enemy. Guarantee that bandits and rogue commanders no longer harass aid workers and steal their vehicles.

Last week he was frank about the state of the Sudanese army:

The morale in the Government army in North Darfur has gone down. Some generals have been sacked; soldiers have refused to fight. The Government has responded by directing more troops and equipment from elsewhere to the region and by mobilizing Arab militia.

This honesty, it seems, has backfired. He’s been ordered to leave by the Sudanese authorities, and by all accounts will fly out today.

It’s a serious set back to the peacekeeping mission which seems (if Pronk’s accounts are accurate) to be making slow but steady progress in the right direction. Apparently, his blog‘s unpopular with UN officials, who’ve wanted him to stop writing for a long time.

But I hope he doesn’t. What he’s produced is the most detailed eye witness account of poorly covered negotiations that exists. If it suceeds, the deal could become a blueprint for other nations, and writings like Jan Pronk’s will be vital to understanding it. 

It’s not the fault of Pronk or his blog that this has happened. It’s yet more evidence of the Sudanese military’s power within the country and their willingness to silence opposition.

And meanwhile, reporters still in the country bring back more grim news.

More biased coverage

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 12, 2006

From AFP (French Press Agency):

200 leading journalists gathered in a recent conference in Johannesburg, and agreed that western media do not grant Africa fair coverage, failing to report positive economic and democratic news. “Every time a country like South Africa is reported internationally, we are reminded about escalating crime and diseases such as HIV and AIDS,” said Tim Modise, a presenter at Johannesburg-based South African 702 Talk Radio.

A confirmation of the fact that the coverage of African stories needs to be enhanced, can be seen in the recent decision of major international media organizations to have a more significant presence in the country.  Zafar Siddiqi, chairman of CNBC Africa, an affiliate of the US NBC, said he is planning two new offices in South Africa, and others across the country. Al Jazeera announced the same intention, and offices will be opened in Abidjan, Cairo, Harare, Johannesburg and Nairobi.

 

More proof of what I’ve been saying for ages. But it’s a problem that we’re not seeing any attempts to correct bar, perhaps, this conference earlier in the year.

In April I wrote about a Commonwealth Broadcasting Association survey into whether television was reflecting the real world and my conclusion was something along the lines of:

News producer need to be more creative in the stories they find, reporting the good and the bad, in new and original ways that are more reflective of the continent, as well as the rest of the developing world.

And producers from other genres must broaden their horizons. The survey has found that audiences do want to see more from the outside world, but they’re tired of the same repetitive formats.

Good to see Al-Jazeera will be boosting it’s Africa coverage when it finally launches later this year.

The solution isn’t simple, but I’d be really interested in what bloggers in Africa think…do you think British/American/European media outlets reflect your world accurately? Make some noise!

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Sudan: a “cruel hoax”?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 7, 2006

Excellent opinion piece in yesterday’s Guardian. Jonathan Steele, still reporting from Sudan, making a sad point about the British and American’s seemingly positive response to the Darfur crisis:

A cruel hoax is being perpetrated on the desperate people of Darfur. With their constant demands for UN troops to go to Sudan’s western region as the only way to protect civilians, George Bush and Tony Blair are raising hopes in a grossly irresponsible way.

It is not just that the Khartoum government rejects the idea of UN troops. More important, Bush and Blair know that, even if Khartoum were to back down, they will not be sending US or British troops to replace the African Union (AU) force. Nor will other European governments.

Why does this matter? Because hundreds of thousands of displaced villagers who sit in miserable camps across Darfur are under the impression that European soldiers will soon be riding over the hill to save them.

All the rhetoric, all the promises then, mean nothing. For some reason I’m surprised, but I know I shouldn’t be.

Click here to read Jonathan Steele’s piece on commentisfree

Sudanwatch and the Hell On Earth blog have also picked up on it

Day for Darfur

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on September 17, 2006

Today is the global day for Darfur – a series of demonstrations are taking place in the U.S. and here in London. The bloggers are rallying too in their own cybernetic ways.
The U.N. are meeting this weekend and Sudan is top of the agenda, and insiders say the pressure is really going to be put on the Sudanese government perhaps leading to a confrontation between Bashir and the U.N.

It’s an embarrassment to human reason that so far we’ve all stood by and let genocide happen again; history will not judge us kindly unless we do something – now.

What you can do today:

Go :: to one of the many rallies being held across the UK. Here in the UK, demonstators are currently gathered outside the Sudanese Embassy.
Read :: about the attrocities on the Hell on Earth blog

Listen :: to the story of a survivor of the rwandan genocide

Look :: at these photographs – this is happening to people – in the 21st century. (you may find the images upsetting. Tough)

Write :: if you’ve got a blog, make some noise!

Add :: a “bloggers for Darfur” button to your website.

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Darfur: enough talking?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on September 16, 2006

The pressure’s starting to build on the Sudanese government this weekend.

As U.N. ambassadors meet in New York to discuss Darfur, thousands of people are taking to the streets in America and Europe to urge government action; they’re joined by thousands more bloggers too. And yesterday George Clooney gave an impassioned speech to the U.N. urging tangible action now.

“Make no mistake, this is the first genocide of the 21st century, and if it goes unchecked, it won’t be the last.”

Strong words. But are words enough? I’ve been writing furiously on Darfur for the last 2 weeks trying to get people to take notice and to criticise journalism’s lame effort on informing people so far.

So have hundreds of other bloggers, from Jewels in the Jungle, to the Sudan Watch, to the Hell on Earth blog.

But a comment left on Sudan Watch this week got me thinking. It was in response to an article on water shortages in Sudan. It elicited a stern response criticising all us bloggers:

Please take this as the constructive input it is intended to be. In my view it is time for all of us involved to make certain that our efforts are not feeding our penchant for voyeurism. You have done a wonderful, compassionate job of helping us see. NOW, IT IS TIME TO HELP PEOPLE ACT. Don’t let us be comfortable watching. We need more courage, more commitment. NOT, more information.
As Dr. King said, “When you are right you cannot be too radical….”
“… when a person is bleeding to death, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed…… Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved…civil disobedience is a strategy for social change which is at least as forceful as an ambulance with its sirens on full.”

I can see his point. It’s all very well us decrying the attrocities and bemoaning the international response, but is blogging going to help the people of Darfur? Is it going to change Bashir’s mind?

Jay McGinley, who wrote the comment is taking direct action by the looks of it. He’s been protesting outside the White House for 110 days and has been on hunger strike for over 30.

Could the rest of us be doing more like this? And wouldn’t it raise the profile of the crisis more than a blog article or link to another article ever could? Perhaps we have to live up to the fact that blogging is an easy cosy way for us to relieve our conscience; “doing our bit”.

Perhaps. But lets not forget that some of these blogs do acheive something. Because to be able to change something we have to be able to understand it. And blogs, especially like Sudan Watch, do a valuable job in tirelessly alerting the blogosphere to the lastest developments that help us form our opinions.

Afterall, in the drought of western media coverage of the crisis, how else would Jay McGinley know how desperate the situation is in Sudan today?

And if you don’t believe me, check out this piece of praise for Sudan Watch from Daniel Davies of the Guardian no-less:

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that if there had been a website as good as Sudan Watch in the runup to the Iraq War, a lot of things might have become common knowledge a lot earlier which have in fact only really come out since the war. It’s an excellent website and deserves a lot more publicity.

So yes, we should be pulling our fingers out and doing more physical action and making more sacrafices, but we mustn’t belittle the importance of information and understanding. Without these, the battle for the people of Sudan would have been lost before it had even begun. 

Why we’ll always need news editors

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on September 14, 2006

The impending future of broadband television and news on demand there are some doom mongerers who are predicting a day when we can create our own news bulletins, tailored to our own interests.

Gone would be an evening news where an editor decides what news we see and in what order. Instead we choose our own news from a list. No need for an editor.

For some this is heaven. News fully democratised, power to the people and all that.

For me, it’s a frightening prospect.

GoatAnd if you ever find yourself disagreeing with me, BBC News Online provides a daily warning that the people shouldn’t choose news. It’s called their Most Popular Stories Now feature.

Today for example, Sudan is the ‘most popular’ story in the news. Is it the story of the increased pressure from the international community on President Bashir to allow UN troops into the country? Is is the Human Rights Watch evidence that the government is bombing villages in Darfur?

No. The most popular story today? Sudan man forced to ‘marry’ goat.