Simple stories can illuminate complex patterns and deeper truths (SDC 2006). This is particularly important when it comes to reporting on sanitation and water topics, where challenges are linked to an array of underlying causes and governance constraints and a successful project hardly ever provides a blueprint solution to improving water management at scale. Storytelling packages information in a way that will allow the audience to understand and remember it better.
Beyond the relevance for water-related journalism, weaving in of narrative elements into more traditional reports not only captures the reader’s attention but also sends a strong signal that many voices and perspectives are valued (SDC 2006).
The following tips help you establish what makes up a good story and what you should consider when covering water topics in a story format.
The word storytelling refers to an ancient skill: telling stories in such a way that people want to hear them.
In journalism and water reporting, storytelling packages information in a way that will allow the audience to understand and remember it better. The audience does this best when stories are told in a colorful way or with some elements of narrative style.
How does storytelling work?
We tell stories to others every day. We listen to stories every day, too. And we can learn from this. In fact, we already know what makes a good story.
We enjoy stories that...
...introduce us to new and exciting topics (Did you know...?, Did you hear about...?).
...tell us about people with whom we identify.
...evoke an emotional response.
...take us to interesting places.
...have a common theme running through them.
...are exciting right through to their conclusion.
...conjure up pictures in our heads that allow us to experience what the storyteller is experiencing.
...are well told.
Now think about what we tend to read in the news when it comes to water and environmental topics. All too often it is about facts, related to water shortages, costs of infrastructure projects or a raise of water tariffs. Instead of dry facts, a journey with a charismatic utility staff along the water and wastewater treatment and distribution processes could educate your audience and unveil reasons why water tariffs are important as well as uncovering inefficiencies for which users and utilities are responsible.
What should be considered when telling a story?
A good story has:
- A clear focus and knows what it’s talking about.
- At least one hero or heroine.
- A setting – a place or an environment (here is where water has a lot to offer from springs in beautiful mountain landscapes all the way to polluted coastlines).
- A common theme, with an exciting introduction, one or more high points, and a well-rounded ending.
- A clear evolution, drama, and good timing.
- Lively, descriptive language.
- A storyteller who is present.
Which media formats use storytelling techniques?
Print, radio, TV, and online journalism: mainly for feature-style stories like portraits, features, and background features.
- What story am I telling my audience? Is there a focal point that could make the story particularly compelling? If I have to, could I sum up the story in three or four sentences? Am I certain about the story I am telling?
- Are there some characters involved in this topic that would make for a particularly good story? Will my audience trust these characters? How do I draw them in and make them curious?
- Are there particular places that support my storytelling, places that add atmosphere and life to my story?
- How will I start my story? Are there scenes, thoughts, or people that will make it clear what I am talking about without giving away too much of the story? How do I keep my audience interested throughout the whole story? Are there instances of conflict or complication, moments where there’s change or maybe something funny that will help me do that? And which moments, questions, or facts should I keep until the story’s ending?
- What sort of story structure would work best? Should the story be told chronologically, or should it switch between various moments and facts?
- Is the language in my story lively? Does it bring to mind pictures and places? Does it avoid the less lively language of the traditional news story? Is the pace of my storytelling fast enough to keep people interested? Am I arousing the audience’s emotions?
- Can my audience tell that it’s my story, because of the distinctive way I am telling it?
When basic questions about journalism come up, this handbook, written and produced by Media in Cooperation and Transition (MICT), provides clear, brief and precise answers. Shortcuts to Journalism isn’t just for journalists – it’s also helpful for non-journalists. Download the English version here or the Arabic version here.Schmidt, E., Tirok, M. and Bösch, M. (2016): Shortcuts to Journalism: The Basics of Print, Online and Broadcast Reporting. Berlin, Germany: Media in Cooperation and Transition gGmbH PDF
In this guide you find 1) tips, templates and tools to help you find, share and capitalize experience, 2) reflections on the practical and the emotional aspects of storytelling, 3) consideration of the challenges and risks in institutionalising these approaches and 4) illustrations from SDC’s experience so far of putting stories to work.
SDC (2006): Story Guide: Building Bridges using narrative Techniques. Berne: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) URL
This online article provides insights and advice from on the effective use of storytelling in content marketing.