What makes a good story?

What makes a good story?

I can think of at least three things:

  1. The story has to grab attention.
  2. The storyteller who “plays the role” will likely connect with the audience.
  3. Putting together a good story typically takes a lot of work, and involves a team effort.

1. Take hold of attention

You need a hook. As a volunteer, I’ve been regularly involved with media interviews. The interviews derive from the fact I have great stories to share. If you have an interesting story, and people point to you as a source of good information, then reporters or producers will seek you out. Through such interviews, I’ve learned many things about how TV news reports are structured. I’ve also learned what I can do, to ensure I get a decent broadcast ratio for my interviews.

By broadcast ratio, I refer to the distinction between (a) how much original, raw footage is recorded, when a reporter interviews you, and (b) how much of what you said actually ends up in the final version of a typical news report. When I first did interviews, only short segments of my words of wisdom ended up in the final version, after everything had been edited together.

In recent years, much more of what I say in an interview ends up in the final broadcast, arising from the interview. Several things account for this change: (a) my command of the content is better, meaning I’m better prepared for the interview; (b) I speak at a slower rate and with a more emphatic cadence; and (c) I step consciously into the most suitable role, for the occasion at hand.

That is to say, if you want your content to have an impact, you need to play the part. You need to provide material that’s going to be useful – that is, will hold the attention of the viewer – in a media broadcast.

These are things I’ve learned from experience over the years, as an interviewee. These are things I’ve also learned, through making audio and video recordings in my role as a person who documents events and people of interest, in my local communities. By local communities, I refer to local neighbourhoods in Mississauga and Toronto, along the Lake Ontario waterfront. When you work with recordings, and with the planning and editing of them, you’re going to learn a few things, about how this realm of communications works.

Urban planning issues

The most recent interviews, that I’ve been involved with, have concerned some intriguing, and interesting, urban planning issues on the street where I live. I could speak of the issues as involving urban planning, or I could speak of issues related to land use planning. However you describe the nature of the issues, you’re talking about how particular issues are framed, and how the stories related to the issues are told.

In order to bring attention to some recent urban planning (or land use) issues on our street, in October 2016 I made a video about Dorothy, a 97-year-old neighbour.

This video has, in turn, led us to a series of City TV news reports.

Dorothy’s story has, in other words, served as a hook for attracting media attention, to our particular cause, as neighbours living on a street in Long Branch, a neighbourhood of Toronto.

At the Vimeo link, below, you can view the the video about Dorothy, and you can also find links to two of the three City TV interviews that have been broadcast, with regard to Dorothy’s message:

Dorothy’s story serves as a hook for media interviews.

However, there’s more to this story than the fact that our neighbour Dorothy is 97 years old and still going strong. This story was edited in a way that took into account the fact that we did not just want to play to stereotypes about senior citizens. When we edited the video, we had a specific plan in mind.

In working with the film editor, Steven Toepell of Bohemian Passport, I outlined several key points related to the purpose, context, and intended results of the video. What I will focus on, for the purposes of the present discussion, was the outline that I had originally prepared regarding the emotional tone of Dorothy’s video. My intent was to create an original message that ran counter to standard stereotypes about senior citizens in our community. That is a key thing that makes the video appealing to online viewers. The video is refreshing, because it runs counter to stereotypes. The outline (which I have edited slightly) went as follows:

Emotional tone

Although she is 97 years old, the video is not about the fact Dorothy is 97 years old. She has lived on Villa Road for 74 years. She moved in during the early years of the Second World War after she got married to Bill.

She is active on the street and in the wider community.

She brings to the video her clear sense of what is appropriate, what is not appropriate, with regard to urban planning issues on Villa Road and the wider Long Branch community.

Dorothy will not speak at the [Nov. 3, 2016] Committee of Adjustment meeting, for health reasons, but we will share the video online at Vimeo.com and at the Committee of Adjustment.

Research about stereotyping tends to conclude that people tend to view elderly individuals as low in competence and high in warmth. We seek to get across the fact that Dorothy has in fact a high level of competence. The warmth aspect is readily evident and we can also emphasize that aspect of things. We want the viewer to be able to connect to her as a fellow human being, facing a major challenge.

[End of notes, prepared prior to editing of the video]

2. Play the role

The content of Dorothy’s story is of interest, but even more importantly, Dorothy communicates effectively. She tells her story well; she has an engaging way with words – and with body language. She’s a natural, as a storyteller. She excels at storytelling. Unlike myself, and unlike many other people, I think, she does not need to consciously step into a role.

So, what this brings to mind, for me, is a very technical side of what makes for a great story. There are a number of ways that we can speak about how a story is told. For this occasion, I’ll refer to my own experience as an interviewee, in particular in TV interviews. I’ve spoken a bit about this topic earlier at this post.

As a volunteer, I’ve been involved with media relations for thirty years. That is, I’ve been involved in projects where we’ve found one kind of a hook or another, and have lined up media interviews. At times, I’ve been among the people interviewed. At other times, my task has been to help a reporter or producer find other, more suitable people to interview. In some cases, I’ve helped people prepare for interviews. For example, I might do a role play of an interview, and help a person prepare, and rehearse, key talking points.

My skills, as an interview subject, have always been at a high level, with regard to the content of what I have to say. I have some expertise, about a given topic, and that’s why I’m being interviewed. However, in recent years, just through the fact I’ve gained more  experience, my skills as an interview subject have increased dramatically. As a result, when an interview is subsequently broadcast, such as on the evening news, I tend to get a lot more air time than I used to get, thirty years ago, when I was starting out. More of what I have said, in an interview, is now included in the final edit, as compared to interviews of many years ago.

So, what has changed? What has changed, above all, is that I have learned to step into a role. For example, if I’m appearing in the role of Local Resident Concerned with Local Planning Issues, I adopt something other than the role of a person just having a conversation with a reporter. When I step into a role, the cadence of my speech, my body language, all aspects of my being, undergo a small but noticeable alteration. I step into the role.

This form of role play is something that I’ve stepped into naturally, without a lot of prior thought. It’s a process that I haven’t given a lot of thought to, by way of articulating what’s involved. My purpose, in writing about it, is to bring attention to the topic of role play, as a general concept.

In still another context, I have a lot of experience in role play and drama. Role play was among my favourite teaching techniques, during the years I worked as an elementary teacher. Live drama in the classroom, featuring well-rehearsed, talented, entertaining young actors – that’s among the most enjoyable experiences that I look back upon, after a career as an educator. I also have a keen interest in the application of a dramaturgical perspective, as in the work of the social psychologist Erving Goffman, in the study of social interactions.

Putting into words, just what it means to step into the role, is not a task that appeals to me. It’s not a task that I excel at. It’s my hope, nonetheless, that you can follow, in an approximate kind of way, what I seek to get across, regarding the value in playing the role, whenever a person is preparing material that will be edited for broadcast.

3. Make it a team effort

Even if you only have one storyteller, storytelling is a team effort. At a minimum, you need a speaker – and an audience, someone who listens. The listener is a key player. If there is no audience, a speaker may still be engaging in the internal dialogue that we know as self-talk. As a general rule, a person’s waking mind is constantly engaged in a form of storytelling, in which thoughts appear and disappear. During sleep, the cycles of storytelling take on their characteristic night-time forms.

As is noted in Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio (2015), production of radio podcasts is typically a team effort in storytelling, with many people working together to generate the story concept, line up the interview(s), and edit the broadcast version of the story.

I’m referring to Out on the Wire (2015) because this is a book – a comic book about radio – that I’ve recently been reading.

What follows is a discussion that is based on some notes that I’ve made, in study of the book.

I began writing notes when I encountered a comment, early in the book, about a radio podcast show, namely This American Life, that presents itself as “not an A & E type of documentary.”

This American Life: Not an A & E type of documentary

An A & E documentary, as I understand, is a style of storytelling that works for some documentary makers, and for some audiences. That approach, however, is not what This American Life is about.

In the latter book, a radio documentary maker named Julie Snyder notes (p. 17) that the stories at This American Life are character-driven. That is, “they follow the same structure, a literary structure, as a fiction story might. The story needs one character that you identify with, who interacts with other characters in a very specific way, and there’s conflict, change, and resolution (and not necessarily the resolution part) inherent to the story.”

The characters, in this approach to storytelling, change and grow, and learn something surprising, something that you wouldn’t expect. The formula, that is described, serves as a framework, but it’s not the framework that is exciting. Instead, it’s the unique story, that fits the framework, that is exciting, in this approach to storytelling.


Out on the Wire (2015) speaks (p. 24) of a particular approach to interviews, at This American Life. My own approach to interviews, when I’m interviewing people by way of storytelling related to local history, has been very much focused on recollection about past events and circumstances – without, however, a lot of focus on how a person’s life has gone through changes, or on reflections, by the interviewee, about the changes that have occurred in the course of a lifetime. That will change, the next time I do an interview about local history.

With regard to interviews, Ira Glass remarks: “Usually, This American Life interviews – like our stories – have two major sections: the narrative, and the reflections.” The discussion, regarding what interviews are about, has been a true eye-opener for me.

Radio as a visual medium

My notes refer to a Q & A (pp. 25-26) featuring Jessica Abel and Ira Glass, in which the latter notes that “radio is a very visual medium … you give the audience something to picture as the story is told, something three-dimensional, and it comes alive. This is the first thing we teach new reporters, right after how to work the equipment. Have the person give you a tour of the key places in the story, on tape, explaining the significance of each place.”

Radio as a didactic medium

In the first part of the book, Ira Glass speaks (p. 28) of radio as a “peculiarly didactic medium, unlike, for example, theater, or comics, where something can kind of happen, and you’re in a setting where people will infer the meaning.” I found this comment of interest, as it’s clear from other parts of the book that, according to other frames of reference, radio podcasts such as This American Life are not really didactic, in the sense of imposing some particular perspective on a listener.

When I think of didacticism, I think more of propaganda. By way of example, Canada’s National Film Board had its start as a propaganda vehicle, whose work was necessitated by government communications requirements during the Second World War. As I’ve outlined in previous posts, the NFB developed a practice whereby isolated segments of reality would be edited to create a top-down message, directing how a typical viewer was supposed to respond to a particular aspect of her or his everyday reality. That’s a form of didacticism. I don’t see contemporary radio podcasts, at least in some Western-style societies, such as in Canada at least currently, as engaging in such a form of didacticism.

Sentence formulas for story structure

The book discusses how a range of radio podcasters approach story structure. For example (p. 56), a person comments: “The part that I need to know is, what’s the one moment in the story that’s the hook.” There’s a reference (p. 57) about one producer’s formula for storytelling, which reads: “I’m doing a story about X. And what’s interesting about it is Y.”

A speaker (p. 59) elaborates: “It’s saying, don’t assume that it’s interesting, articulate why, try to get me interested.”

A producer comments (p. 59), “Here’s your standard story. But – .” “And what that’s telling us is, I want a twist. Give me something other than what I was expecting to hear.”

As well (p. 66), “The phrase we use is, ‘The moment you know you have a story is the moment you realize it’s not the story you thought it was.’ And that requires that you be awake, and alert, and sensitive, and dynamic in your attitude.”

Getting the story in your mind

A producer comments (p. 97), “There’s all this editing after the process, and thinking. But if you don’t think about it beforehand, you don’t have the tape.”

There’s a reference (p. 100) to getting a recorded narration just right, when preparing a podcast: “I think the real art of narration is learning to feel it just enough, even if you say it over and over again.”

Craft of actually being an actor

I’ve been looking through my notes, and finally I’ve arrived at the quote that I was looking for. Ira Glass notes (p. 101), “Essentially, for you to perform a version of yourself on air, you’re having to learn the craft of actually being an actor.”


A Nov. 28, 2016 nymag.com (Science of Us) article is entitled: “There Are 6 Basic Emotional ‘Shapes’ of Stories.”

2 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Storytelling: Getting attention; playing the role; collaboration

    I have posted the comment, that you are now reading, as a separate post.

    Define storytelling however you like

    I do not bring any particular expertise to the topic of storytelling. As a student of storytelling, I am a beginner and always will be.

    You can define storytelling however you like. Storytelling occurs everywhere and at all times. You can speak of digital storytelling and in the process define it however you like.

    You can speak of oral storytelling – as occurs in person-to-person contexts, where people are in the physical presence of each other – or social media storytelling, where people are sitting in front of screens. Or you can speak of the storytelling that occurs where a person writes a book that is subsequently published, and that people read. Storytelling is a key element in media relations and public relations, however the latter modes of communication may be defined.

    As a writer, listener, reader, viewer, and/or as a communicator in any format or circumstance, each of us is a key player in storytelling.

    We are talking about how people perform when they communicate, whatever their purposes and goals (for good or ill) may be. Storytelling is as readily a tool of practitioners of democracy, however democracy is defined, as it is a tool of demagogues and dictators.

    We are dealing, among other things, with how the mind works, how we construct meaning, how we make sense of things, and with how we use language to talk about, and share information about, our respective stories.

    We are dealing, as well, with the role of appearances in the mobilization of resources, with the nature of consciousness, the definition of reality, and with how we go about distinguishing between reality and unreality.

    Stories are concerned with power, and with the wielding of it. Stories and labels lead to behaviours; stories and labels are, in particular circumstances, matters of life and death.

    The Struggle for Tibet (2009)

    In a previous post, I have outlined the introduction to The Struggle for Tibet (2009). The book is focused on the views and experiences of people currently living inside Tibet.

    The Dragon in the Land of Snows (1999), which focuses on the history of Tibet since 1947, is a significant achievement. The introduction to The Struggle for Tibet (2009) outlines how the book came to be written. I am highly impressed with the 1999 study and am pleased that I recently came across it.

    I have also been reading the first part of Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (2016).

    Below I will add some notes, based on passages I have read so far, from the above-noted books.

    1. Getting attention

    The story has to take hold of, and hold onto, the attention of the audience. That is to say, you need a hook. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (2016) speaks of hooks as they apply to the rise of Adolf Hitler the Nazi Party in Bavaria in the 1920s. There are many ways to study Hitler; the approach Volker Ullrich has adopted makes sense to me.

    Another writer, who adopts an approach regarding the rise and fall of Hitler that makes sense to me is one adopted by Richard. J. Evans. I have discussed the latter’s work in a post entitled Narrative helps us understand Germany in the 1930s (Richard J. Evans, 2003).

    Click here for other books by Richard. J. Evans >

    Hitler got attention starting in Bavaria in the 1920s because he spoke well. He had a talent for rhetoric and chose themes that resonated with his audiences. As befits a demagogue, his narratives, which strongly commanded attention in the beerhalls of Munich, were the opposite of an evidence-based approach to storytelling. Employing religious imagery, he projected messianic expectations. The demise of German currency through hyperinflation and decay of fundamental social values (p. 133) helped to advance Hitler’s narrative, in his beerhall speeches in those years.

    2. Playing the role

    The storyteller who plays the role will likely connect with the audience. In Hitler (2016) Volker Ullrich notes that, as well as being a skilled rhetorician, Hitler was a skilled actor. He knew what part to play, for which audience, depending upon the circumstance. As Ullrich notes (p. 123), in Munich in the 1920w, Hitler learned to play changing roles: his second greatest talent after his rhetorical skills, the historian notes, was his acting ability. In this context, Ullrich adds (p. 124), Hitler demonstrated a cunning mastery of the art of disguise.

    3. Collaboration; coordination; working together (occasionally, in the sense of colluding)

    Putting together a good story typically takes a lot of work, and involves a team effort.

    Commentary about storytelling: Columbia Journalism Review and Deutsche Welle (DW) articles

    A Jan. 19, 2017 Columbia Journalism Review article is entitled: “The coming storm for journalism under Trump.”

    An excerpt reads:

    This is central to the communications strategy of the man taking power Friday [Jan. 20, 2017]: Whereas all modern presidents have spun information—even lied—the reality TV star actively obstructs a fact-based public debate like no other before him. Whereas all have attempted to take their messages directly to supporters, Trump has a unique gift for using tools that do so almost instantaneously. Whereas all have sought to limit press access to suit their political ends, Trump’s relationship with the truth has called the very value of access into question. And whereas all have railed against the press in the face of negative coverage, Trump has portrayed the media as a political foil he’s actively trying to defeat.

    Decades-long trends in media and politics have made this moment particularly ripe for a figure like Trump—and particularly precarious for the journalists covering him. Even the most prestigious media companies face an uncertain financial future, and the atrophy of local outlets has diminished coverage of the very regions that comprise the base of Trump’s support. The media’s fragmentation, competitiveness, and increasing partisanship have sapped it of much of the collective political power it held during Watergate. Add in a hyperpolarized environment in Washington, on the internet, and across the country, and the Trump Administration may usher in one of the most challenging environments for the Washington press corps over the past century.


    A Sept. 30, 2016 Deutsche Welle (DW) article is entitled: “Trump subtweet helps make Hitler biography a US hit.”

    The sub-head reads: “A 1,000-page German biography of Hitler has become a US bestseller after a review implied parallels with Donald Trump. The book’s translator, Jefferson Chase, says there are numerous points of comparison.”

    A photo caption accompanying the article notes that “Hitler was also a media star in his day.”

    An excerpt reads:

    Ullrich – the political editor of the highly respected weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” for almost 20 years and the author of eight major historical books, including studies of Bismarck and Napoleon in addition to Hitler – seems a bit taken aback at suddenly being dragged into the US election.

    “The success of the first volume of my Hitler book surprised me, and it definitely seems connected with the New York Times review,” Ullrich wrote me. “Actually it’s not a review – much more the reviewer has tried to insinuate affinities between Trump and Hitler with an (admittedly clever) collection of quotations, although without ever explicitly naming Trump.”

    Although he sees some points of comparison between the two figures, he cautions against equating them.

    “When I wrote my book between 2009 and 2013, there was no talk of Trump running for president so there was no way I could have him in mind at all,” Ullrich pointed out. “I think comparing Trump with Hitler is inappropriate because it dangerously underestimates the latter. In toto, Trump probably doesn’t represent the sort of threat to world civilization Hitler once did.”

    Ever the scholar, Ullrich doesn’t want to go into detail on a topic he has not himself thoroughly researched. But this is not the first time, nor is it likely to be the last, that parallels are drawn between the Donald and the Führer.


  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A May 3, 2017 Open Democracy article is entitled: “Sharing stories in a broken culture: Respectful relationships are a prior condition for persuasion.”


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