Conference info

Will Storr on the science of storytelling

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.






Words By Juliette Rowsell and Corrie David

Conference info

Wil Treasure’s podcast clinic: “cut, cut and cut again”

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.

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.


Words by Sabrina Faramarzi



Conference info

Making longform journalism pay: Jeff Maysh in conversation with Alex Perry

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it has pacing issues.”

Only writing three in-depth stories a year might not be enough alone to keep a writer financially liquid. Reporter-turned-author Alex Perry and Jeff Maysh have adapted to today’s media to make the most of their work. Both Jeff Maysh and Alex Perry discussed how they made their writing irresistible to film and TV producers in Hollywood and elsewhere.

The main point the writers covered was that journalists need to adapt themselves to the demands of today. “Your writing first and foremost must work as a longform piece,” says Maysh. Both advise against writing for Hollywood. “I can’t take a story unless I know it’s a longform piece,” Alex admits. “Otherwise my children don’t eat.”

However, Jeff also explores how longform lends itself to other outlets such as audio, TV and film. “I feel like narrative journalists and Hollywood are looking for the same thing. We want transformative characters, a strong narrative and a twist. But what’s that saying? Truth is stranger than fiction but it has pacing issues – so definitely keep that in mind.” 

Being aware of how your work can translate across platforms is important Maysh explains. “For anyone writing something who believes there may be TV interest, fight to retain your rights.” Through retaining his rights for his McDonalds story, the $1m deal was signed to him.

Alex and Jeff recommend getting an agent, should this opportunity arise. Maysh credits his agent as “a key thing” for making his work for a producer. Perry says, “For me, I’ve got two agents, a literary one and a guy that specialises in taking something from print to film, without them it would be impossible.”

However, when it comes to the scriptwriting, don’t expect to be involved. Neither of the journalists has been approached to write a screenplay. Perry says, “I have to bite my lip because you sell an option to a production company and they say ‘we’ve just got to wait for this really great writer’ and I’m like hello, I’m in the room! But I’ve tried to write screenplays and they are really hard. You can’t just turn up and try to do something others have been doing for years. It’s a different muscle.” 

Words by Corrie David