In my 14 years of travels as a journalist and feature writer, I’ve experimented with different ways to tell a story. In its purest form, a news story is simply about presenting facts and information — but how can you do it effectively?
Here are 10 tips from my journalism writing that can be applied to any digital media storytelling. After all, content marketing is all about information, presented in a compelling way.
1. “Tell it to a friend.”
One of the best tips I got in j-school about writing a compelling lead (or “lede” if you’re coming from old school): Think about the way you would tell it to a friend or to someone at a party.
When you tell the story to a friend, you pull the most interesting aspects and you focus on them first. Use that for your lead if you’re stuck.
2. Mind the 5 Ws.
This is not just a journalism rule. Stories need to explain who, when, where, what and why. And for more impact, add the h: how. Cover those six questions and you’ll make sure you haven’t left out important information.
3. Show, don’t tell.
Take a page from fiction writers. If you can include dialog, show a scene or tell an anecdote (or an example), you’ll keep the audience engaged.
4. Get to the point.
In this age of what I call digital media ADHD, you have only seconds to capture someone’s attention. No one is going to wait out that long introduction to your video (no matter how proud you are of your animated logo) or read through a rambling blog post.
Stay on topic and don’t use a word (or image) more than you need to.
5. Pictures are (still) worth 1,000 words.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I see paragraphs and paragraphs of nothing but text, I dread reading through it.
If nothing else, use images to break up the text and make your message more reader-friendly.
And, if pictures are worth 1,000 words, how much is video worth? Infographics? Well-executed presentations? Think about variety.
6. Ask good questions if you want good answers.
If you’re just learning how to interview experts for your blog or articles, have a list of questions ready. But don’t feel like you have to stick to the script.
Introduce a question (out of order) where it feels natural, and before you move on to the next topic, ask questions that clarify or deepen the answer.
A good trick I learned from another veteran journalist is to always end the interview with, “Is there anything else that I (or readers) should know?”
7. Do your research.
No matter how brilliant you are and how much you know about the topic, it’s not a bad idea to brush up and do some research. If you’re blogging, that means you’ll find information on trends or other articles that you can link to. You’ll at least learn what others are saying — and try to come up with a fresh angle.
8. Proofread! And then do it again.
Sometimes it annoys the heck out of my family that I can’t resist pointing out typos in random places — like restaurant menus. I recently ran across a new magazine about a cutting-edge technology topic that I loved, but after reading through a few articles, I shelved it back.
Why? I couldn’t get past the typos. Granted, not everyone pays attention or cares, but you should strive for all your content to look professional. And, as I like to say, having an obvious grammatical error on your website, in your brochure etc. is like sporting a stain on your suit. It doesn’t make a great impression.
I’m not a saint — I make my share of mistakes even after years of writing and editing. (Yes, I’m sure I’ve let typos slip into this blog too.) But this awareness helps me decide when I need a second pair of eagle eyes to read through my prose and make sure it shines.
9. Don’t be afraid to come out of your comfort zone.
I’ve done some mildly crazy (for me) things for a story, like go autocrossing (I don’t like high speeds). Or interview from the top floors of Seattle’s Columbia Center, the fourth-tallest building west of the Mississippi River (I’m afraid of heights).
As an introvert, I’m pained in a networking environment where the point is to make small talk. But send me on an assignment, and I have no problem working the room.
When you’re using content to market your business or organization, don’t be afraid to do something that scares you. Your audience will appreciate you so much more. Next thing you know you’ll be hooked (I went autocrossing again! Who would have thought…)
10. Cry if you have to.
Today’s pseudojournalism practices aside, journalists are expected to be neutral on the job. But that doesn’t mean they don’t feel someone else’s pain, shame or frustration.
I’ve cried on several interviews when talking about highly emotional topics. And if I managed to not tear up during the interview, I cried while writing the story. And I think that emotion came through for the readers.
Don’t be afraid to show your passion and emotion. That’s what makes your content unique and helps your audience relate.