Will Storr, author of the best selling Selfie: How the west became self-obsessed, closes this year’s 2019 Well Told Conference. He tells us, good story taps into instinctive human behaviours
He begins by asking the audience, “Why do smart people believe crazy things?”
The brain tells a story, that we’re the heroes of our own lives, he says. “The brain creates a sense of self,” he adds.
“When you’re coming up as a writer…you’re lead to believe storytelling is storytelling because it’s done by a genius”
Storr’s talk finds justification for our reading habits in our biology and human history.
He begins by examining the neuroscience behind the eye and our perception. He says the brain is a storyteller, therefore we must understand science to write a good story.
As humans, “we’re constantly investigating,” he explains. Everyday, our brains are analysing the story we’re seeing, “looking for anything unexpected”.
The unexpected signifies a change, and a change is where a story begins. According to Storr, great journalism and great interviews “connect moments of change”.
Storr gives examples from Karl Marx to Suzanne Collins to highlight where change works to tell a story.
Good long form journalism “doesn’t just fall into the realm of facts”. The brain isn’t interested in facts: “It’s interested in change.”
Stories which ignore cause and effect, and follow an ‘and then’ format are bad writing. Journalists must avoid this if they are to write good journalism.
However, it’s not just cause and effect that the brain understands. He says that good longform journalism taps into all instinctive human behaviours.
Another instinct he identifies that constitutes good journalism is gossip. He explains that gossip is an integral part of human history, originating in tribal behaviour which helped protect the tribe.
“That’s exactly what journalism is: gossip.”
Gossip stems from antagonists, and our moral instincts refute selfishness. Storr says, humans have “mastered the idea of cooperation, unlike all the other apes, we’re really good at cooperating.”
It is for this reason we hate selfishness, and selfish people cause upset, affecting people. To that effect, when someone acts against the tribe, we gossip. He pulls up a study to highlight how gossip sells because on an intrinsic level it’s what we do. “They would create the emotion of moral outrage,” he says.
Gossip turns into moral outrage, and moral outage drives journalism. You don’t hear about moral outrage without wanting to do anything about it. We want to hear about people doing the bad stuff to protect ourselves and protect the tribe’s interests
When a villain arises, so does a hero, who is the opposite. In every story with a villain, there is opportunity for a hero to be born, “a moment of supreme selflessness that defines the hero.”
To summarise: a good longform writer needs to understand how the brain processes information in order to write a great story.
Will Storr’s new book The Science of Storytelling will be available soon.
CIJ Well Told’s panel discussion on “Interactivity vs Storytelling” brought together Zillah Watson from BBC‘s VR studio, Ben Fogarty, CEO of Holoscribe.com and host Joe Bond from The Spectator to discuss whether new tools and technologies enhance storytelling or whether they just get in the way.
According to Zillah Watson, VR works for journalism by “employing traditional storytelling techniques brought to a new medium”. She explains that VR has changed the way we tell stories. “VR is experiential: audiences are able to see or feel an experience for themselves, it takes audiences on an epic journey.”
For Ben Fogarty, VR needs to look real. “If we’re creating something, for example, an immersive journey to a new world; it better look real – we don’t want to be gimmicky,” he says. “To be successful, the VR needs to create a real and immersive journey,” Watson added.
The panel also discussed how VR adds to a story and should be used when it can tell a story better than television. The BBC VR documentary Damming The Nile told the story of the great renaissance in Ethiopia and the geopolitics of building a dam and has been successful with VR headsets as it allows users to see and the experience the story for themselves, said Watson.
The documentary had to be re-versioned for YouTube, Watson added. “The VR and 360 elements didn’t work well without a headset, you have to re-version the story for a new version,” she said.
At Holoscribe, journalists also use 360 to “allow a user to control their path, instead of dropping them in and telling them a story,” Fogarty explained. Wilson agreed, “More seeing, less telling.”
Wilson also explained that you need a really strong narrative to carry users in VR. “In 360, users will engage and revisit stories where they can pick characters and stories,” Fogarty added.
Joe Bond also talked about how VR can be used to capture serious topics. Watson told of a shocking experience of VR in Prague [where the participant experience] execution, which was interesting but not something the BBC would explore, she said. Instead, the BBC is exploring audience focused pieces and use audience testing to work out how best to use VR.
In the near-future, BBC VR will bring quality scriptwriters and drama that creates pace and tension to users in an immersive VR experience based around Doctor Who, Watson said.
Victoria Anderson and Wallis Eates discuss their experiences of acquiring access to HMP Wandsworth Prison, only to be told to destroy all of their material.
Anderson and Eates first went to Wandsworth prison in 2017 on behalf of Stretch Charity. They had access to the prison for five months, and worked alongside the prisoners to help them make animated films.
Describing arriving at Wandsworth for the first time, Anderson said, “The physical space of Wandsworth Prison is extraordinary. It looks like a dungeon, like a castle,” she says.
“We were part of a charity that has been cleared to take digital equipment to take recording equipment into a prison. We were part of the only charity that had been granted permission to take recording equipment into the prison,” Anderson says. “However despite this, we got taken to security twice as a result. We had to destroy all footage.”
The decision to delete the films was made by the comms department who were worried about the films creating negative media traction. Which is ironic Anderson says, as they were they there to give voice to the prisoners, not demonise them. “We wanted to honour what was going on and the people there, not do an expose on it.”
Anderson and Eates said the prisoners were excited to get their stories out, that they were finally being heard. “They [the prisoners] were tremendous,” Anderson said. “Of all my times working in prisons, I’ve never met people more willing to talk about the big stuff,” Eates says. “Aestheticism, life, death, mortality.”
The issue then resulted into a question of storytelling itself. “How do we visually bring out these men’s stories to audiences? Bring out that their nuance? Not illustrate every single thing, but allow those words to breathe.”
Having an idea is one thing, pitching it effectively is another. This afternoon’s panel brought together Stuart McGurk of GQ, Rosie Blau of 1843 and Finlo Rohrer of BBCNews. Hosted by Chris Stokel-Walker, the three discussed what makes a good pitch to them.
Rohrer says, “One of the most important things is you can immediately see it on the page.” For him, the person needs to have a coherent idea of what they want to write and that needs to come through in the pitch. He wants to know how you’re going to approach it in detail. You should be able to answer the obvious question: “What’s the headline?”
“Most stories need some pre-reporting,” says McGurk, “You need to have done some digging.”
Blau agrees. “The worst thing you can do is pitch something you don’t yet know yourself,” she says.
When editors’ inboxes are constantly receiving pitches, they make quick decisions about your pitch. A pitch that is too long won’t get chosen because it tells the editor you don’t know what’s important within the story. “It can always be shorter,” says McGurk.
If you catch the interest of the editor, they will then ask questions to get more detail from you. Blau believes the pitch reflects the quality of your work, explaining, “if you haven’t taken the time making it short, I can’t rely on you writing the piece properly”.
Editors are busy, so pitching at the right time in the production cycle can make all the difference, but generally, first thing in the morning is a good idea. To get McGurk’s attention, he says to email him “first thing when I’m in ‘coffee, email, getting admin done’ mode.”
On top of this, write a specific subject line to catch her attention, “‘Hello’ or ‘An Idea’ is a rubbish subject line,” Blau says.
She says the magazine relies on freelancers, and welcome their pitches but have to reject many of them because they are not detailed enough. “People keep pitching subjects instead of stories,” she says.
You need to think about the way you're going to structure your article. @stuartmcgurk says, "an understanding of structure is really important. If I know someone's been thinking about that then you're already ahead of everyone else pitching to me." #CIJWellTold
“Tell the subject through the story is always the mantra,” adds McGurk.
Blau wants to be surprised, and a surprising pitch is more likely to be picked. She says, “There should be a sentence you can tell me that makes me think ‘that’s amazing!'”
If you’ve been unlucky enough for your pitch to be ignored, it’s always worth chasing up.
Rohrer says, “You definitely should follow up.” Even if your pitch isn’t right, it’s worth finding out. “I’ve always tried to give people feedback on why we haven’t taken something.”
For those who haven’t freelanced before, it can be hard getting an editor to take a chance. Blau says, “I really want to know you can do it.” If you haven’t got long clippings to include, say what you have done that makes you specifically qualified to write this. For new writers, she asks they “include two things of what they’re most proud of writing.”
Freelancing is tricky at the best of times, getting commissions, getting paid on time, chasing up late fees when you’re not paid on time. On top of that, cutbacks throughout journalism and publications falling into administration threaten all journalists, but none more than the freelancers.
The panel, hosted by Mun-Keat Looi, commissioning editor for Mosaic, is made up of three freelancers who began in different ways.
Sally Hayden was a news writer for Vice before being laid off and forced to go freelance.
Olivia Crellin has moved back and forth between freelancing and staff writing; she also founded PressPad, sourcing free accommodation for writers getting work experience in London.
Simon Akam, apart from working for a brief period at The New York Times, has always freelanced.
To start out, they unanimously agree they needed savings. Akam was lucky enough to have parents to support him, Crellin had a job teaching English in Chile, and Hayden had a severance check to see her through for a little while.
These savings allow you the time to hone your pitching skills and make the most out of your ideas. Akam credits the scariest thing about going freelance is facing rejection, but “if you’re working for yourself you constantly have to front-load the frightening stuff.”
Crellin worked as a staff writer first which enabled her to get a mortgage on a flat in London, which she now rents out.
Working as a freelancer, you need to ensure you look after yourself. Hayden works a lot on trauma and injustice, and she notes she needs to expand her portfolio. After covering a story of refugees being tortured, she fell apart and there was no one to check on her. “Since then I’m very conscious that I don’t want to always be doing emotionally draining stuff,” she says.
Looi interjects here encouraging freelancers to ensure they give themselves holidays.
When it comes to pitching, Akam sticks to a strict schedule. Every Monday he drafts a pitch and Tuesday he sends it off. If there’s no reply by the following Tuesday, he’ll chase it up via email, if he has nothing by the third week, he’ll call.
“You need to get your head around this and lose all of your shame,” Akam says, “I won’t let them ignore me.”
Finally, they recommend setting your pitching sights on America. Akam reveals, “The top of the British market will pay £1 a word and think it’s lavish, the top of the American market will pay upwards of $2.”
However, he does recommend writing for The Guardian as “it’s well edited and a good shop window.”
Thanks to all who came to our freelance session #CIJWellTold.
Rachael Jolley, Editor of Index for Censorship, and Meera Selva, from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, sit down to discuss writing for a global audience, the art of a successful pitch and the state of journalism.
“People find it really difficult to think about a global audience,” Jolley says. “Everyone is so used to thinking about it from their own perspective. Often the stories people are pitching they have a knowledge in, but it’s a story that ‘s already out there. Stories need to make sense to people in France, Argentina, Spain. You might know that this is the minister for education, but does your audience? You need to be able to take a step away.”
They discuss how important it is to think outside of your social and cultural bubble. They keep referring to how pitches need to look outside of their own perspective and look at their story from an external perspective and whether the story still stands up.
They say it’s important to make it clear, ‘why are you the person telling this story?’. “in your pitch, you have to explain precisely why you’re telling this story. You don’t necessarily have to be from that community at all,” Salva explains. “You could offer a comparative perspective; it could be that you’re politically safer to report on the issue. For example, you could go to Russia, and then have the safety of being able to again leave. You have to quite clearly express this in the pitch.”
Discussing the opportunities for freelance, Jolley asks Selva whether she thinks that a decrease in staff jobs is a good opportunity for freelancers. Selva is hesitant towards this.
“Yes, there’s opportunity, but there’s a risk,” she says. “Budgets are being cut, and this is why there’s more opportunity for freelancers because there are fewer people being employed as staff writers. In a healthy world, it’s a mix of both. Falling budgets are good for anyone. But I do think that there’s the opportunity for freelancers to reach more editors. In the digital age, there’s more opportunity to catch editors attention.”
She goes on to speculate that the very thing that was accused of ruining our attention spans, is the very thing that is liberating longform journalism. “There’s no point in regurgitating the short bits off of social media. Is the world of journalism moving towards long form because they can get so many short snippets of news from social media?”
They both see social media as a place for opportunity. They open up the discussion to the audience, with many speaking about how they have been able to interact with editors online, how they’ve been able to share their work to wider and more global audiences, and the opportunity to find work online.
Salva also talks about how social media helps you build a “personal brand”, which she says is even more important in many ways to global audiences. “Your citizenship matters to global audiences; If you’re British that’s how you’re going to be perceived. You need to define it so people don’t define it for you. Create the image that you want someone in a foreign country to have of you,” she says.
Returning back to the matter of longform journalism, it’s good news, Jolley says.
“We’ve always been an advocate of longform journalism at the Index on Censorship,” Jolley explains. “We think that the world has swung round with us. Four years ago everything, had to be 400 words, we were told that everyone has the attention span of a flea. It’s really interesting how this has changed.”
Rob Orchard’s brilliant presentation on the drama in data explores the way that data can provide powerful visual stories, particularly in combination with longer features.
“Data journalism is the antidote to knee-jerk production”, he says and emphasises the power in data stories capturing the big picture and the sheer number of people affected in any given story. “We’re at the beginning of a data revolution,” he says.
“With data, you can tell stories of human emotions in ways other forms of articles can’t.”
For Delayed Gratification, Orchard says he uses data to surprise readers but also aims to link news pegs to interesting figures about people. A particularly successful use of data in Delayed Gratification Orchard mentioned was an article on English peoples’ streaming of Three Lions during the World Cup, juxtaposing a chart that showed Spotify’s streaming figures against the dates key matches were played, providing an interesting and amusing source of information.
Discussions of Brexit can’t be stopped says Orchard. His team monitored comments on online news articles unrelated to the topic, such as the Beast from the East and the time Ed Sheeran broke his arm in a cycling incident and found a huge number of comments about Brexit. This resulted in several pages of engaging material about how many comments were left on a non-Brexit article before Brexit was mentioned, with some commenters even linking Brexit to Paddington Bear and The Ashes.
Ultimately, Orchard captured the beauty and thought-provoking narrative that data journalism can create.
Feature writer and columnist Sathnam Sanghera discussed the impact of British-Punjabi culture on his writing and being born to Punjabi parents in the West Midlands, in his amusing Lunchtime Keynote talk with Mark Kramer.
Sanghera comes from a non-literary family, he said. His father is illiterate and his family don’t read his writing despite being the main thing he writes about. He has to “triple check” his stories because when he asks his family for stories and information, they disagree with each other.
“People make things up to hide the pain and can completely contradict each other.”
He writes about his family but they don’t read it, the reverse of the problem of a white middle-class man, he said. “My family are not a literary family and they don’t read what I write, I had to teach myself how to do longform writing”, he added.
Sanghera finds the most effective journalism he reads is when the writer admits “There’s no such thing as the truth”, and tries to develop stories fully. He said: “I did ten years of journalism at FT and I never talked about myself.” He added: “So when I first started writing memoirs, I read about 30, I was looking for a model to steal!”
Sanghera emphasises having a reason for starting writing memoirs. He said: “You either have to have something new or interesting to say or you have to make a joke and entertain.”
Writing about your family is atypical in Punjabi culture, Sanghera said. He added: “In an Asian family, you don’t air your problems” and explained how his brother, who is all about image, questioned the way Sanghera shared memories and stories from his family.
Additionally, writing in the West Midlands is interesting, he says. “The West Midlands is full of self-deprecating writers – no-one would ever gloat about Wolverhampton”, he joked.
But growing up in the West Midlands gave Sanghera lots of things to talk about. He guiltily admitted writing can be a “long, painful process” and each chapter of his recent novel had about 40 drafts.
Although his family are happy about being written about, Sanghera wishes he’d thought about what he was sharing about himself. He said: “I didn’t think enough about what I was revealing about myself, all those embarrassing stories about my teenage sex life and incompetence with girls in university – I didn’t need to share those.”
Ultimately, however, “There’s something intrinsically funny about British-Punjabi culture”, Sanghera said and he hopes to bring this across in his memoirs.
Podcaster Wil Treasure held a lunchtime clinic to offer advice on advice, hardware, software, scripting and structure as well as tips on arranging interviews, collaborations, pitching to specialist media and learning the skills to produce professional content.
He advised podcasters starting out to try and make something that will have more legs than ten episodes in order to have time to build an audience and get advertising in order to get paid. However, he went on to state that podcasts are an excellent way to cover something niche and specialist.
Treasure went on to explain his methods, namely that he tries to not put himself in his podcasts – even to the point of not being present in the actual recording. “I don’t record my side of the interview deliberately to put my interviewee front and centre of the story,” he says.
Thanks to those who attended the podcast clinic at @welltold today. You can find the posters I used on my website here: https://t.co/owhbAe2SSB Get in touch with any questions and to share your work with me 🙂 #CIJWellTold
He also went on to explain that he acquired a small amount of funding from his local council that went towards new recording equipment. He advises journalists to cut, cut and cut again – even if they’re cutting something interesting, the narrative and pace is the most important part when keeping listeners engaged.