Two helpful tips to help explain massive stories in 30 words or less

Many of my students look forward to the time in their journalism careers when they can move beyond the the inverted-pyramid, paraphrase-quote structure of meetings, speeches and news conferences. The idea of sinking their teeth into something much longer, more complex and multifaceted feels like a rite of passage from beginner to expert.

Most of them, however, find themselves exceedingly frustrated when they attempt to ply their trade to those bigger pieces, as it can feel like juggling Jell-O while trying to herd cats. The pieces don’t fit together right, the focus seems to drift and the overall concept of the story becomes one blurry mess.

The key thing to writing any story is being able to answer two questions:

  1. What am I trying to explain here?
  2. Why should anyone care?

That is as true for basic meeting stories (“The city council made it illegal to park on the streets overnight, which means State University students will need to find private parking and pay a premium price.”) as it is for major investigations. (“Banks were improperly incentivized and got greedy in the subprime mortgage market, leading to  risky decisions that tanked the U.S. economy.”)

I remember catching a session at a college media convention many years ago, in which an investigative journalist for a popular sports magazine told the students in the room that if they were writing a story, they needed to be able to explain it in less than 30 words.

“If I ask you what your story is about and you tell me, ‘Well… It’s complicated…’ that tells me you really don’t know what your story is about,” he said.

After the session, I introduced myself, told him how much I liked his presentation and then I pressed him a bit on the “30 words” thing. I made the point that if we’re talking about a game story or a speech story or something, I could see his point. However, the work he did? That’s got to be impossible to capture in 30 words.

“No,” he said emphatically. “You need to nail it down like that or you don’t get the message across to the readers.”

To push back, I asked him about what he was working on at that point. This was in the early 2000s when baseball was starting to sniff around the issue of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. He was digging through records, leaked emails and other things that explained who knew what, when and where and how. He also had information on individual players, suppliers and owners who all found a way to kind of absolve themselves of the sin of cheating.

“How in the hell can you boil that kind of thing down to 30 words,” I asked him.

“As far back as the mid-1990s, players were taking steroids and everyone knew, but no one did anything because everyone was making too much money,” he replied.

25 words. Bam.

So how do you get to the point of being able to do something like that with your stories? Here are some simple ways to make it happen:

FOCUS ON THE CANDY: When we talk about basic writing and sentence structure in the book, we start with “The Holy Trinity” of noun-verb-object. The sentence starts with those three elements and then builds outward from that core. This ensures us that we’ve got the main idea at the heart of what we’re trying to say. As we add more content, it has to support and augment that, or it’s no good.

The same thing is true for when we write basic inverted pyramid stories: The lead is the essential foundation of what we’re doing in the story. Each subsequent paragraph has to support or augment that element or it needs to go away.

Writing longer and more complicated stories is no different. Just because you gathered 20 times the material you would normally gather for a simple news story, it doesn’t follow that all of that can or should be added to the piece. In fact, you want to strongly resist the urge for “notebook emptying” when it comes to bigger pieces.

Focus on the core element of what you want to say and get rid of everything that isn’t that. One of my favorite scenes from Aaron Sorkin’s old “Studio 60” show exemplifies this perfectly: Two rookie writers are trying to a sketch about the world’s worst criminal who takes hostages in a bank.

They try so hard to do so much with it, it doesn’t work. Once they essentially realize that problem, the do addition by subtraction and start eliminating stuff that isn’t about their premise. That’s where they get it to work.

FOCUS ON YOUR AUDIENCE: For generations, journalists have operated under the mantra of, “I write, you read, because I know what you need.” The fact was that the audience read the stuff or watched the stuff because they lacked for better options. When there’s one or two newspapers and three or four TV channels, well, you’re stuck with whatever is there.

Today, that’s not the case as not only do we have an almost infinite number of media platforms from which to choose, but we also have exponentially more content providers than at any point in time. The thing that’s going to make you stand out, and thus your story stand out, is understanding what your audience needs from you and then providing it in a clear, coherent and helpful fashion.

In big pieces, we try to show how everything we have gathered can affect everyone who might ever come across our work. It’s like we’re trying to be everything to everyone.

This is where audience centricity really comes into play. For WHOM are you writing this piece? What are the demographic, psychographic and geographic elements that you can use to tailor your piece to a specific group of folks that will benefit from your work?

In talking with my class the other day, we were going through the issues hammering our university right now, including an $18 million budget hole. In that, we started parsing specific audiences and what they would want to know:

  • Students care about their majors getting cut, the classes they need to graduate being available, tuition going up etc.
  • Faculty worry about increased teaching loads, the length of furloughs, the potential elimination of majors.
  • Non-academic faculty worry about getting fired, as we’re cutting about 200 jobs, and those that remain worry about what their jobs will look like after the culling.

In each case, you can create a solid focus based on the audience and then really know what your story is about. It can’t be about all of these things in depth, but it can be several stories that each focus on one key set of stakeholders and the issues that matter to them.


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