What makes a ‘good story well told?’

Mark Twain said “I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.” Who doesn’t like a good story well told? J.K. Rowling turned the story of British school children with magical powers into a multi-billion dollar cottage industry. When one of my first editors was pleased with an article my colleagues or I wrote for the newspaper he’d exclaim: “That’s a hell of a damn story.”

Too often, however, the public relations and corporate communications arenas are filled with stories that are dull, confusing or written in language only persons with advanced degrees could comprehend. They read as if the writer didn’t want you to grasp his message or he/she buried the news on the third page of the press release.

I take pride in producing good stories well and making complex topics accessible to different stakeholders. I put technical jargon into the layman’s language and strive to keep my sentences and paragraphs brief by editing out unnecessary verbiage.

But that’s not enough. A story needs to resonate with the reader, especially when that reader is a journalist. Within a split second he or she will decide whether to open or delete an email based on the subject line and, perhaps, a few lines of the lead paragraph. So, strong headlines are a must, as is compelling content. Here are a few devices to hook your audience.

Human Interest           The student body at City College of New York consists largely of young men and women from New York’s immigrant and working class families. Many are the first in their families to attend college. They persist to graduation despite juggling job and family responsibilities, and often they have overcome adversity. Their stories touch the heart and open the wallets of generous alumni.

An example is Lev Sviridov, who lived with his mother in a tent under the George Washington Bridge when he came to New York from Russia. Lev was an outstanding student and researcher who would become City College’s first Rhodes Scholar since before World War II.

One year we sent out a simple media pitch about two other high-achieving students who received doctoral fellowships from prestigious universities and had compelling human interest stories. The New York Post bit and ran a full-page feature with the headline “They’re Back! Best and Brightest Fuel CCNY Revival.” That’s quite a turnaround from a newspaper that a few years earlier was treating City College as a whipping boy.

We later institutionalized stories like these by creating a web site called Great Grads. It featured profiles of a dozen or so members of the graduating class from across the campus. The chosen students weren’t just high achievers. Many had great human interest stories, too. We promoted the site through social media (Facebook, Twitter) and received an excellent response. Great Grads became an annual project. The development office re-purposed the content as a journal and posters for a fundraising gala. They also invited the Great Grads to attend the dinner and sit among the alums.

Relevance           Readers need to relate to a story. It has to be about something they care about. A professor could be a terrific researcher or teacher, but often interest in his or her work is, unfortunately, confined largely to his or her field of expertise.

That wasn’t the case for Teresa Bandosz, a City College chemist who researched the odor-adsorbing properties of carbons. Professor Bandosz discovered that sludge pellets heated to high temperatures and converted to charcoal could reduce the odors emitted at sewage treatment plants. This held out the possibility of relief for New Yorkers who lived near the plants. Both The New York Times and Daily News ran stories about her work.

Timeliness           “Strike while the iron is hot.” The best time to put out a story is when it offers a fresh perspective on something people are already talking about. Such was the case with a story we issued in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy about landscape architecture Professor Catherine Seavitt’s research on use of soft infrastructure to protect against coastal flooding and storm surges. She and colleagues had published the research two years earlier, and suddenly it became topical. The story was picked up by several websites, including Business Insider and World Landscape Architect.

Graphics           We all know “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Some images remain etched in our memories. Good photos, illustrations, charts and graph enhance stories and help readers grasp the content. I’ll discuss what makes for good art another time. However, being able to provide supporting materials, including video, increases the chances a story will get picked up.

Sometimes, however, a good writer can paint a picture just by using keystrokes as his or her medium and a computer screen for a canvass. Such was the case with a reporter for the Greenville News who wrote a feature story about a pig farm. It ran on the front page of the Sunday edition without accompanying photos. It didn’t need any. The writer put the picture in the readers’ minds. It was a hell of a damn story.

Numbers           To be newsworthy, something has to be the first, the fastest or the biggest. To earn one of these accolades it needs to be quantified. Numbers are news. Colleges and universities are ranked by academic standing; research expenditures, acceptance rates and the prowess of their athletic teams. Those rankings get reported and shared widely. In the investment banking world, the league tables were watched religiously as bankers vied to be listed number one in underwriting debt or equity.

The numbers aren’t always readily apparent. One client wanted me to publicize his business producing telethons to sell cable TV. I asked how many units he had sold. He wasn’t sure. Then I asked whether we could say truthfully he was at or near his one millionth sale. That became our hook, and it resulted in a nice feature in one of the cable trade magazines.

No matter whether you’re trying to place a story in The New York Times, sharing via social media or writing for a newsletter or website seen by your best customers, the content needs to be well written and hook the reader. You are competing for their time and attention. Make sure it is time well spent. What else have you done to hook your audience?

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