I was recently asked to round-up some advice for a class of journalism students, working from this question: What do you wish someone had told you about journalism when you were in school?
Oh, gosh … where to start? Firstly, I thought there would be more indoor-hat-wearing and fast-talking on phones.
I rounded up this GIF-ified list with journalism students in mind, but these things are true for just about any storyteller. As for the GIFs, well, there’s no such thing as a bad reason to look up Mr. Rogers on Tumblr.
1. It’s your job to make people curious
Yes, it’s your job to collect information and share it with people, and you should be accurate, fair and ethical above all else. But it’s also your job to make people curious about the world around them — to make them pause and wonder what life is like for someone on the other side of the planet, or how our society could be different if only. If you make inducing curiosity as your top priority, and every other goal gets much easier to reach.
2. Tell them something they don’t already know
Don’t tell the same stories again and again — look for something new, every time. Sometimes, that means looking at a tired topic in a new way. After all, Malcolm Gladwell found a way to make the never-changing state of ketchup fascinating. Look for one fascinating detail — your ketchup conundrum — and build stories around that.
3. You’re always working for someone
You are always, always creating stories with someone in mind. It might be your editor (because you don’t want to get yelled at, of course). Or your sources, because you don’t want to damage relationships. It could be your competition, because you want to have a story no one else has. But here’s who you should be working for: your consumer. And to do that, you have to listen. That means doing more than reading the comments or checking your replies on Twitter — it means asking questions that only meaningful data can answer. Immerse yourself in data. Be honest about what data is telling you. Change how you do your job based on what you learn.
4. Don’t take success for granted
Found a formula for telling stories that works? Take it to heart. Learn from it. Build on it. Allow it to evolve. Never, ever assume that success is permanent. Your audience is changing; so should you.
5. Your readers have motives
We don’t do anything just for the sake of doing it; consuming news isn’t any different. Maybe French philosopher Blaise Pascal said it best: “Curiosity is only vanity. We usually only want to know something so we can talk about it.” When you’re assembling stories, ask yourself: What will motivate someone to read or watch this? To share this? To remember this? Hypothesize, then speak to that motive. Watch your data and find out if you’re right.
6. Headlines are promises
You’ve probably heard the headline is the most important part of your story, and it is: It’s your best chance at telling someone why they should be interested. Of course want to command attention; of course you want to make people curious. But don’t lie. Don’t oversell. Don’t misrepresent what comes after the click. We’ve all learned how to write better headlines because of the success of sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy, but make sure you’re not promising your audience an emotional response they probably won’t have. Because …
7. Your reputation matters
Fool me once, shame on you. Feel me twice and I’ll hide you on Facebook and never click on one of your headlines again. Building a relationship with your audience takes time, but it’s worth it. Consistently provide fulfilling stories. Make good on your promises. Listen to consumers (see No. 3) and make adjustments.
8. All media is social media
How we consume news has changed. We all expect to have our say, to be heard and to hear from others. Because of this, telling a story is sometimes just the beginning. Prepare to listen and follow-up. Prepare to follow new threads and rethink how you’re reporting on a story. Don’t act like you get to have the final say on something — there’s no such thing.
9. Make people feel something
The way we relate to news isn’t a whole lot different that the way we relate to movies or novels or television shows. Want to create gripping stories that evoke a lasting emotional response? Develop your characters. Work toward making your audience empathize. Structure your story to create suspense, tension and resolution. Bottom line: Make them feel something. And while we’re talking about feelings …
10. Tell stories that surprise people
Surprise is a powerful emotion, and it’s also a gateway response: It leads to other emotional experiences. Tell stories that surprise people, and you’re much more likely to achieve an emotional connection with your consumer. Ultimately you want to …
11. Strive to change minds
Strive make people change their minds about what they thought was true. At some point in the process of crafting your story, pause for a moment and ask what information you have that contradicts common assumption. Make that your foundation.
A modified version of this post originally appeared on the author’s personal blog at amyrolph.com.