knows how to tell a good story.
The award-winning journalist and veteran senior producer of CBC’s investigative TV program “The Fifth Estate” has dedicated his career to tracking down fascinating and untold stories, from a hunt for child predators to an investigation of the Hell’s Angels.
Sher has uncovered a paradox: Journalists, who are in the business of telling stories, have actually ruined age-old narrative traditions through their approaches.
For Sher, the inverted pyramid writing style is one of the worst offenders, because it often reveals the juiciest part of a story in the first paragraph. So, why read on? Sher’s revelation was unsettling for his audience, a room full of journalists at this year’s Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Thankfully, Sher has a remedy. He offered some tips that he promised will help reporters tell a more engaging tale, whether they are shooting 60-minute TV documentaries or writing short Web hits. The following tips can also be used to tell your brand’s ongoing story in a press release. After all, your goal in PR is to appeal to the storyteller inside every journalist.
Be an intrepid reporter and storyteller.
“Scoops are reported, but stories are told,” Sher says.
Reporters often put on their reporting hats first at the expense of telling a story.
“Around 90 percent of a reporter’s time is dedicated to gathering facts, interviewing, and researching, with little time reserved for storytelling. This is one problem that can result in mediocre writing,” he says. When journalists do get around to the storytelling process, many of them opt for a fake approach, says Sher.
We’ve all read those kinds of stories: They start with an anecdote and then move right into the facts and research to support it. For Sher, the better approach is to let your writing guide your reporting rather than the other way around. When working on a piece, Sher often creates a “science fiction” or dream script to reveal how he wants his story to turn out, assuming he finds the right character and quotes to fill the bill.
The same technique can be used in press release writing, once you have an idea of where your brand’s story is headed. Rather than collecting data first and writing your release as an afterthought, spend time crafting a compelling introduction and quotes that will draw in your readers and make them want to continue reading. Keep in mind that press releases are more than just facts and figures.
Stay on track.
All captivating stories need to have a clear focus. Otherwise, they become a collection of jumbled thoughts. If your story lacks a focus, your reader has no reason to continue. Sher says the focus of a story should be a verb with a corresponding reaction. It’s up to the storyteller to turn the story’s premise from an assemblage of nouns to a strong focus with a verb that conveys the crux of the story.
Sher says the easiest way to create a clear focus is to create a simple, declarative statement that a 5-year-old could understand—advice that’s fitting, as children are often great storytellers with short attention spans.
Make use of the classics.
Think of the great plot devices in fairy tales, fables or Shakespeare’s plays: foreshadowing, dramatic irony, plot twists, and even humor. Remember in “Romeo and Juliet” when Tybalt fatally stabs Mercutio, who then quips, “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man”? These tools are classics for a reason, says Sher. They work.
If you’re reporting bad news as it relates to your brand, why not include some quotes that reveal a more human side instead of corporate-speak? A journalist on the receiving end might decide to use your powerful quotes. Mercutio’s words have remained memorable over centuries for good reason.
Include some of the above literary devices, along with what Sher calls the four C’s—character, context, conflict, and conclusion. When writing your press releases, think of the hero or villain who is part of your story. Keep in mind that the ideal character who best represents your brand might not be the CEO. It could be someone behind the scenes.
Build your narrative.
Opt for the classic narrative arc with a strong teaser opening, and then include the information that provides context about your brand. Finish with the climax of your story, but add a final unexpected twist in the denouement or resolution of the story.
Although teaser openings can be risky given that journalists have a limited time to scan your release, teasers can hook a journalist if done right. Think of the ways TV and radio broadcast stations present what’s “coming up next,” and try to adopt similar techniques in your release opening.
Remember to stick to a clear plan. “Chronology is a harsh mistress,” Sher jokes, adding that you can’t deviate from the arrangement of events in the story, though you can create small detours along the way.
Yellow sticky notes become his best friend: He can block out a few big sections and then add smaller sub notes to make sure the story makes sense.
Zara McAlister is a media relations specialist for Business Wire Canada. Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter.