THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE STORYTELLERS
by Deborah Potter and Annie Lang
The story begins with a highly produced sequence that grabs the
viewer's attention right from the start. It has all the elements-compelling
video and sound, fast edits and wipes, sophisticated graphics-the
kind of story that draws applause in newsrooms.
But what about in living rooms?
It turns out that producing stories this way can actually make
harder for viewers to understand and remember what they've seen.
That's because watching television news is not a simple task. Even
when viewers are paying attention, when they're not distracted by
their surroundings, they still have to process information on two
tracks simultaneously, both audio and video. And some production
techniques and storytelling styles can make that process even more
That's the basic message from a stack of studies that most journalists
know nothing about. The research results have never been seen in
most television newsrooms, in part because they're written by and
for academics. But if you look past the graphs and data tables,
the studies suggest some simple steps you can take to help make
stories more memorable-suggestions some news directors, reporters
and photographers already apply because they believe it makes good
sense. Consider these seven steps as a way to enhance your value
to your viewers.
Let the Emotions Talk
It may be obvious that emotion compels attention and engages the
viewer. That's one reason emotional stories work so well on television.
And studies confirm that people remember emotional stories better
than dull ones. But there's a catch. Emotional content requires
more effort for viewers to process.
Lane Michaelsen, news director at KTHV-TV in Little Rock, AR, says
that when a story has emotional video, he sees no point in using
wipes, graphics or gimmicks. "I think it's distracting to people,"
he says. "It clutters up the newscast. Just because it's cool
is no reason to do it."
The research supports his perspective, and goes even further. Studies
suggest that when a story has emotional video or just an emotional
theme, you should keep the presentation simple to avoid overtaxing
Slow it Down
The human brain can be overwhelmed by too much information coming
in too fast. But television stories often bombard viewers with information,
combining quick cuts and multiple scene changes with non-stop narration.
When this happens, the brain "chooses" between the audio
and video channels of information, and guess what usually wins?
Video, of course, because it's easier to process. But while the
video is being digested, that script you worked so hard on is making
no impression at all.
Lisa Berglund-Jolly, former director of photography at KNSD-TV
in San Diego, CA, used to be a fan of fast-paced editing. But now
she says it depends on the story. "If the reporter is saying
something important, I want my shots to be soothing, not too demanding,
not too many cuts, so the viewer isn't paying so much attention
to the video and isn't listening."
That's what the research says, too. If you're dealing with a complex
story and you don't want viewers to miss the meaning, keep the editing
pace moderate to slow.
Dare to be Quiet
Don't be afraid to be quiet. If you have unusual video effects,
compelling images, or complex graphics on the screen-be quiet. Studies
show that a pause in the narration about two seconds long may improve
comprehension and memory dramatically. And it wouldn't make the
story significantly longer, or force you to leave out any key information.
"Write something that will add to the experience of the viewer
in seeing the picture," the late Charles Kuralt of CBS News
advised. "But when you can, have the courage to remain silent,
and let the picture tell the story. Give people time to feel something."
Match the Audio and Video
News director Scott Libin at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, MN, is a firm
believer in matching words to pictures. "Anytime the video
diverges from the audio, I think it forces people to divide their
attention," he says. Libin urges reporters to match their narration
to graphics almost word for word. He even believes that some information
is best delivered by the anchor on camera. "There's a lot to
be said for eye contact."
Research says he's right. Studies show that viewers remember stories
better when the words, sounds and pictures are closely related.
So whenever possible, tell the same story with the audio and the
video. When you can't, let the elements take turns. Use the video
to attract attention or draw the viewer in, but don't introduce
complex or important information in the audio track right away.
Know How to Deal with Negative Images
Negative images and stories are compelling. They demand attention
and they get it. But while viewers are looking at negative images,
like crime or accident scenes, they may not pay attention to what
they're hearing and remember it. Studies have found that information
in the audio track a few seconds before and during negative images
may be completely forgotten, essentially erased by the strong video
content. What follows the negative video, however, is remembered.
So the solution is simple. Separate the important stuff from the
negative video so the information doesn't get lost.
"We do that on instinct," says Tracye Fox, news director
at WTKR-TV in Norfolk, VA, citing a recent story about animal abuse.
The reporter put the most important information about what investigators
had uncovered in the narration, and covered it with news conference
video, well before showing scenes of animal cruelty. It might not
have been the most visually compelling approach, but the research
suggests that viewers probably got more out of it.
Take a Literal Approach
Concrete words and pictures are easier for viewers to remember,
but not all stories are about concrete things. When dealing with
abstract ideas-in economics or science stories, for example-research
finds that establishing relationships between elements of the story
helps viewers understand the underlying concepts. So use graphics
that show relationships instead of just raw facts or numbers. Or
find video that illustrates the concept in a concrete way.
That's what WFAA-TV's Byron Harris did when he told the story of
a new, faster computer chip. He compared information flowing through
the chips to traffic, and used aerial video of streets and highways,
giving viewers a concrete representation of an abstract idea. "I
think about things people deal with every day and use them to explain
[concepts]," Harris says. "Sometimes the most mundane
things that occur to you really work."
When you're stuck for video and a graphic won't work, use words
that build pictures in your viewers' minds. Studies indicate that
if you provide the viewers with imagery they will remember the pictures
in their heads, making it easier for them to recall the substance
of the story.
Engage Your Viewers
To engage your viewers, tell stories on television the way you
tell them in person. Use strong, chronological narratives whenever
possible. Studies have found that narrative stories are remembered
substantially better than stories told in the old "inverted
pyramid" style. Whatever structure you choose, don't make viewers
search their memories in order to understand your story. Give them
the information they need when they need it, so they can follow
each part of the story. Use words which connect the pieces of the
story to each other, and which make the chronology of events clear.
At WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, OH, former news director Stuart Zanger
encouraged his staff to do exactly that. He even has a term for
it: using "handrails" to help viewers follow complicated
stories. "When we tell them something important we make sure
they got it," he says, by reinforcing or repeating essential
Why bother doing these things? Why worry about how information
gets into people's brains? It's only television we're dealing with,
for goodness sake, not brain surgery. Well, consider all the choices
viewers have for information. What makes them choose you? Could
you get even more viewers to tune in if your newscast was as compelling
as ever to watch, but easier to understand and remember? Might be
worth a try.
After all, if we're only getting information into people's living
rooms and not into their heads, we're really only doing half a job.
As KTHV's Lane Michaelsen puts it, "If the viewers aren't understanding
the story, what are we putting it on the air for?"
Annie Lang is associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana
This article was originally published
by RTNDA Communicator magazine, October 1999.