Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to make great stories come to you

Posted in Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 23, 2010

Finding & telling a great story is what drives many journalists in what they do.

We put lots of effort into figuring out how to tell the stories, but not enough is ever written, or taught, about where these mystical narrative apparitions appear from. Most stories fall flat, not because of the telling, or the media, or the equipment used – but because the story isn’t good enough.

So, where the hell can we find these stories?

Well, the Brighton Future of News Group, run by Sarah Booker, have come up with a great little scheme to find great stories…by getting them to come to you!

How does it work?

Last week, #bfong held an open ’empty shop’ day in Shoreham-on-Sea, a small seaside town on Britain’s south coast. Anyone could pop in with old photographs, artifacts or just stories of their lives and the town. And on hand were a group of journalists, armed with cameras, laptops and audio recording equipment.

Handily, the press-pack included Judith Townend, Adam Tinworth, Adam Oxford and Sarah Booker, some of the most sharp-eyed Next Generation Journalists around.

The team used a live Tumblr blog as their platform for stories they produced – and collected dozens throughout the day. People wandered in, perhaps attracted or made curious by the sign outside. The team also hit the streets too.

Adam Oxford interviews a resident

Sarah Booker interviews a resident

It seems like a wonderful experiment in doing journalism a little bit differently. If the hacks on the local paper were as enterprising, they’d have gathered enough material to fill an edition. Instead, they were left covering the event as an outsider.

What’s exciting is this approach can be easily mimicked in any community. Pick a day, gather some journalists, find a free public space and open up shop! Judith plans to bring the open-shop approach to the refugee community in London and my mind is spinning with ideas for other settings too.

The irony of this age is there are more stories out there than there ever have been; but too many journalists have paralysed themselves with arguments about who will pay for it.

We just need to get out there, take the #bfong open-shop approach and tell some stories. That’s the future.

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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!