A Producer’s Guide to Storytelling – 7 top tips learnt from the media industry

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Effective storytelling doesn’t just present people with a load of facts and figures, but it speaks to people’s hearts and minds. It causes them to engage with you on an emotional level. Storytelling has been shown to be a key technique in communication in the last few years, and many of the major brands (such as Nike, Virgin and Google) are advocates of it. It is just as powerful in the charity sector, a sector that’s jam-packed with people’s stories and impact.

In our previous science of storytelling article, we discussed how stories could impact and engage the human brain. Storytelling is essentially when you create an engaging narrative and use it to connect with your audience on an emotional level. In our producer’s guide to storytelling, we’ve compiled a few essential hints and tips that we’ve learned from working on productions with organisations like the BBC and Discovery Channel and a wide range of digital campaigns. You don’t have to be a film producer to be faced with the task of producing an engaging story. These hints and tips below are designed to help anyone with the basic building blocks of building a compelling story.

An organisation will have many different stories that it can use for various uses in its storytelling kit. We’re going to talk here about key practical points that can be used to produce a story with impact. This story may be shared through a single piece of content such as a photograph, video or copy, or it could be shared through a website or an event.

Why storytelling?

Storytelling, when done well, will catch the heart before the head’s had a chance to catch up. Stories shape our identity and how we see others around us.

Stories have the power to change perceptions and mindsets. They can paint a world that we’d not thought of before. They can transport us, call us, inspire us, and scare us. A well-told story can make use feel that we’ve shared experiences with someone that we’ve never met.

Humanity has used stories for millennia to bring together people and divide others – sometimes this is through mythologies, and sometimes the stories are based on real events. Whichever approach, a good story will pull people in. The Egyptian kings used stories powerfully to inspire and control their people. The great Roman Caesars used stories to tell of their victories and instill suspicion of the people groups that they wanted to conquer. We use stories to share hope. We use stories to bring people together. But, people can also use stories to manipulate – you only have to look at the darkly skilled rhetoric of dictators to see just how one persons’ stories can change the perception of a nation.

Storytelling to Inspire

Compelling storytelling is a powerful tool for gathering people around a cause. A great story unifies and casts a vision that others buy into.

This may be if you work in HR, stories to use internally to inspire those within the organisation. If you’re in marketing, communication or fundraising, it could be stories that help reach a wider audience and support network. If you’re a director, it could be stories that you can share with key stakeholders and partners to illustrate the impact and build trust in your message.

A Producer’s Guide to Storytelling

Step one – it’s all in the preparation

Identify Key Themes

Identify key themes that you need to illustrate and then listen out for stories linked to it. Every organisation will have visions and values that you need to convey to a broader audience. Stories can be a crucial way of doing this. But how do you know what stories to use and how to find them? By identifying key themes that you need to speak into, can help lead towards the best stories for you to use.

Knowing your themes is also crucial when producing media content – what themes do you want to convey? What opportunities do you have to gather information and quotes that support this?

If you’ve spent time finding out the key messages, you’ll know when you come across something that can speak into these themes.

For example, news journalists may not know precisely when a newsworthy story is going to break, but they have spent time learning their arena and fine turning their judgement and skills to understand when they hear something that will be headline-making. They can then quickly spring to action when an event occurs.

Go In With A Plan

What do you need the story to show, what approach are you going to use? (Documentary, animation, copy, event, stunt etc. – there are lots of options). What emotional points to you need it to hit? Once you’ve thought through a wish list, you can start thinking of finding a way of bringing it all together. Whose story can help you? Is it a story of a person, a story of a project etc. What? If you are planned at the beginning, it will help you spot opportunities that arise as you go through the process.


Step 2 – Know Your Audience

As much as you need to know your themes, knowing your audience is critical. If you don’t connect with the audience, then there isn’t much point in making the piece in the first place. Think about who you want to speak to – why should they care about what you’re saying? The more you know your audience and your themes, the easier it will be to be spontaneous with content later on.

Every documentary will be created with an understanding of the time slot, channel and audience demographic. This enables the content to be created with the potential audience in mind. A piece of digital content should be no different.

By asking some difficult questions in the setup, the result is far more likely to connect with your intended audience. Try to put yourself in their shoes. If this is difficult to do, then find a few people who might be representative of your intended audience that you can test your idea with first.

It always amazes me just how many organisations we speak to who are keen to embrace storytelling but haven’t first thought of who they’re trying to talk to. Of course, it’s true that a well-told story will engage, but a well told story that knows its audience is far more likely to reach the people it hopes to connect with.

Step 3 – Know Your Platforms

As with a traditional TV channel, each digital platform brings with it a different audience. If the intended platform is YouTube for example, then there’s little point writing a blog in the first instance.

Each of the platforms you’re using will have its audience and way of communicating. By spending time researching the way that an audience expects to be spoken to and interacted with, you’ll increase your chances of effectively reaching them and engaging with them.

Step 4 – How Do You Identify a Good Story?

A good story is a good story – you’re pulled in.

When was the last time you heard a good story? How did it make you feel? This may have been a book, a film, a person’s story?
In research stages for documentaries, I always know when I am speaking to a potentially strong contributor. I just get pulled into what I’m reading or what they’re saying. A good story you can’t help but be drawn in by.

The critical thing is to think back to your intended audience continually and then think ‘will they care about this’. If the answer is no at any point, don’t be afraid to keep it out.

Step 5 – Don’t Be Afraid

One of the most powerful tools in observational documentaries is following a process. It’s a real privilege as a producer to be sharing someone’s journey and documenting it. When the audience watches or reads it as an edited form, it’s then much easier to show that there was a journey, and not that someone just arrived. It also gives people a reason to care more about the character.

For example, there have been many great works created about someone’s journey. If they just started with ‘they left, and then they arrived’ the whole point of the story would have been missed. For example, the Hobbit would have never have been written. Neither would Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia.

This technique brings with it the necessity to not be afraid of stepping in, to ask a question, to take the photos etc.

We find its really an excuse to be the curious toddler who’s never quite tired of asking ‘why’?

In the Moment

Don’t be afraid to ask a question in the moment. If something’s not said or captured, how can you show a wider audience? I’ve seen so many opportunities missed because someone didn’t take out the camera or ask the question at a critical moment. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable, but this is when the best content is created. Jumping into the actual moment, not waiting until it’s passed

This is key to being able to bring other people into it afterwards – this is true for photography (just look at the Pulitzer Prize-winning photos), videos and copy – the ability to tell a good story is very much interwoven with someone’s ability to relay that moment, after it’s happened.

For example, if someone’s doing a parachute jump. Capturing the jumper prepare and asking someone how they’re feeling the moment before they do the jump is going to be a lot more compelling than after they’ve been home safely for a week and it’s all over.

What’s more compelling – a few shouted words over the noise of the plane as they jump out of the open window – or a charming little tale about the jump when they’re sat in the safety of their armchair, with a cup of tea, at home? Even if it’s for a written article, you’re going to be able to get a much better representation of the story of their journey that day by following it.

Step 6 – Use Personal Stories

There’s nothing quite like the testimony of an outside party to endorse your brand and the impact that it has.

Personal stories can be compelling when relaying the impact that something has had, but they also can be sensitive. This requires consideration and care to ensure that the correct safeguarding measures are in place. Many stories are worth sharing. In the arena of personal stories, compelling storytelling must be coupled with trust and effective safeguarding.

Some organisations have embraced this in recent years. The Breast cancer charity Coppafeel powerfully uses the personal stories of its ‘Boobettes’ to share awareness of breast cancer and signs to look for. Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity powerfully leverages patient’s stories across their digital platforms to show the impact of their work. Charity Water in the States has led the way for utilising stories to powerfully inspire a generation of the need for clean water for many in the world. And Nike consistently uses the achievements of athletes to inspire the next generation to push themselves, and to buy their products.

Step 7 – Your audience needs a reason to care

A huge part of storytelling is effectively providing context. Essentially, context helps to pull your audience further into your stories.

An audience needs a reason to care. By clearly providing your audience with context, you can bring them into the story. Think about if you were to meet someone new. If they just said their name and stared blankly at you, you’d get very little chance to understand who they are. Their appearance may well give away something about their character, but you’d need more information. By asking them what they do, and to share some of their stories, you can learn far more about who they are.

If you don’t give your audience a reason to care, the chances are that they’ll move on to someone who does.

Just because something is obvious to you, it doesn’t mean that it’s obvious to a broader audience. It’s your role as the storyteller to make it clear and engaging to them.


What would you like to know about next?

There are many more components of storytelling that we have tips and tools to help you with the process. If there are other questions you would like us to address, contact us and we’ll include them in later blogs.

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