How to tell a good story

As discussed in an earlier blog post, new media has changed the way we communicate with each other and how we consume information; our expectations of receiving information packaged in an attractive way have certainly increased. In the digital space where hundreds of stories are unfolding continually, you need to be able to tell a good story that stands out if you want to catch people’s attention and get them to engage with you. What method to employ then to tell a story that people react upon online?

According to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg we are in the golden age of video online right now. Apparently we are getting more and more used to seeing videos telling us stories online (instead of reading). Browsing through my Facebook feed I do see a lot of videos. Whether they are from media outlets, NGO’s, institutions, or entertainment companies I have noted some characteristics they have in common; they are short, (often) witty and highly engaging. Such as this one:

This Cafe In San Antonio Serves 3-Pound Cinnamon Rolls

Publicerat av BuzzFeed Food den 23 december 2016


In the context of communicating topics related to development, in this blog we have discussed how NGO´s and the Swedish government have adapted their communication strategies to keep up with an ever-demanding online audience. So how about news organizations? Most of them are present on social media and many are active on Facebook, using it as a platform to share news. How do they deliver development news on social media? And what is the added value in using this new platform? Yesterday being International Women’s Day, let´s take a closer look at a feel-good news video about India’s first school for grandmothers that recently popped up in my Facebook news feed.

The story is about a school that was started by an Indian teacher and a local charity trust as an initiative to educate elderly women who never got a chance to go to school, in order to empower them and make them self-reliant and confident. Let´s start by taking a look at the original video that was produced by the news agency Reuters, thus not the one shared on Facebook. Click here to see the video (I know you are probably too lazy but you need to click on the link as Reuters doesn´t allow sharing the video on this blog or other pages).

It is a short video reportage that is made in a “traditional” news format that we are used to seeing on television. Now, who doesn’t love feel good news? Is there a need to package this news report in a more compelling form to attract attention?

To answer that question, let´s compare the original one with the video that has been edited and shared on Facebook by Channel 4 News:

India's "grandmothers' school" gives elderly women a chance to…

'Grandma School' gives illiterate elderly women in India a second chance to learn how to read and write.

Publicerat av Channel 4 News den 6 mars 2017


Well, in comparison the original one is a bit dull. Even though the same footage is used, there are clear differences. The features of the edited video are quite similar to the first one (on the huge cinnamon rolls) we saw in this post. The news video is presented in a square format, which seems to be the new standard for videos on social media (at least that is the format of many of the videos that I see on my social networks). I imagine the square format has something to do with most viewers using a smartphone to see the videos and we are probably too lazy to have to rotate the phone to see it. Also, the video can be seen muted; descriptive title cards and large, easy-to-read subtitles easily transform pictures into a coherent narrative. Unlike in the original video, there is a clear call to action at the end of the edited video: “Like, Comment, Share!”

In media studies, scholars refer to the term mediatization when explaining how media is shaping society, meaning that institutions and different processes in society are increasingly “constrained to take on a form suitable for media representation” (1). Here we see a case of a “traditional” mass medium (Channel 4 News) adapting to the “new rules” of social media when presenting media content.

What is then the added value of all this?

First of all, obviously it doesn’t hurt to present a news report in a more attractive way in order to capture online users´attention. Adjusting to the “new online rules” is necessary if you want to get noticed in a world of 140 characters, photos with filters and six second Snapchats. Even though I cannot prove it, I do believe that the edited video manages to grab the attention of more viewers than the original one would have done if also shared on Facebook.    

Secondly, using social media as additional platform not only increases audience reach, it also creates a platform for discussion. The edited video has been liked by more than 4000 people, shared by almost 2000 people (meaning that the video reaches even more people) and received more than 100 comments on Facebook. Below the video, viewers have commented on the news report and there is a lively debate going on between people commenting on Britain’s colonial history and questioning the impact it has had on India’s development.

So, by “pimping” the video more people get to see the news report which then allows for a more intense discussion online where everyone can take part. Therefore, in this case, using social media as platform has more potential to engage the audience longer than the duration of the news report compared to reporting through a traditional medium, for example television or newspaper. And the sender (Channel 4 News) is not merely disseminating information but also encouraging engagement by its call to action at the end of the video.

All is well that ends well then? Is the take-home message from this that all news reports should go through social media? It is not as simple as that; as our attention span is decreasing in a digital world full of distractions and where senders are guided by their obsession with getting more clicks, there is always the risk of shallowness. Where traditional mass media in many cases have the space to provide quality-driven and informed analysis and reports, the digital space has changed our news consumption habits; we want immediacy and easy to understand pieces of information. Such as the feel-good news report that works well as a click-bait oriented piece since it focuses only on the positive and therefore is  “likely to oversimplify and leave out important facts” as Daniel Lombardi points out in his piece “Don´t create a mood, just tell good stories”. No need to dig into the complexities of the story.

Therefore, as there is a tendency towards shallower and more superficial news reporting online, how to engage the audience if you only have 1 minute to tell a news story on social media? Here I would like to share Lombardi´s advice;

[W]orry less about creating a particular mood in a story and focus more on telling it well. Whether they’re sad, funny or happy (and the best stories are usually all of the above), quality stories that inspire the audience to action, can really change the world.

So, whether you´re a journalist or a development communicator looking to engage people online, don’t get demotivated by the acceleration of the news cycle online. A good story can give depth and substance even though the time frame is compressed.   

(Photo credit: Rossyyume/”Story” via Flickr (CC image) )

(1)   Page 376 in Couldry, Nick (2008) “Mediatization or mediation? Alternative understandings of the emergent space for digital storytelling” in New Media Society, 10(3), pp. 373-391.