6 Storytelling Tips from BuzzFeed and Other Digital Storytellers

The Power of Digital Storytelling: 6 Tips from Social Media Club NYC

For eight months, the content tracking company BuzzSumo kept an eye on the social shares of more than 100 million articles. It was hoping to answer some questions about what makes content go viral. And in April of this year, it did.

After sorting through all of the data, BuzzSumo identified 10 qualities that were most common in viral content.

Although article length, tone, and format were among these vital characteristics, the one attribute missing from the list was subject matter.

It doesn’t matter whether you write about the economy or something commonly considered “buzzworthy” like entertainment. Everyone has an interesting story waiting to be uncovered.

The challenge is finding the best way to tell that story so your audience wakes up and listens.

Social Media Club NYC recently hosted Rachel Zarrell, reporter and weekend editor with Buzzfeed; Ginny Pulos, founder and president of Ginny Pulos Communications, Inc.; and Marcia Stepanek, president and founder of Brand Stories for a panel on digital storytelling.

During the conversation, they discussed what makes a good story, why visuals are important to storytelling, and much more.

Read on for six tips from that panel. And for more on how to tell a story in the digital age, check out Polina Opelbaum’s transcript of the Social Media Club NYC event on ProfNet Connect.

Social Media Club NYC panel

Social Media Club NYC panel

1. Basics first: Get your audience to care.

“To make something a good story,” said Zarrell, “it needs to make people feel strong emotions.” But how do you tap into your readers’ feelings?

Sometimes, it’s about picking a topic you’re passionate about.

For instance, Zarrell once wrote an article about a pop star’s behavior that she felt wasn’t appropriate for a celebrity. “Over a million people shared that story,” she said. “It really resonated with people. I went into work and wanted people to feel what I did that day. I was passionate about it.”

If it’s not a topic that naturally inspires an emotional response, you can still tell a good story.

Pulos recommended incorporating these five basic elements: Strive to be “brief, true, about a person, engage an emotion, and end on a high point.”  Writing a story in present tense and having it acted out a little bit helps, she added.

2. What’s your story in a nutshell?

“A key element is to get to the ‘so what?’” said Stepanek. “It’s about compelling content and brevity.”

If you’re struggling to wrap your head around a topic, the panelists recommended writing a “nut graf,” a paragraph that captures the story’s who, what, when, where, why, and how. While you may not use that paragraph in your final draft, it will help you get to the heart of the story and uncover its value.

“That is definitely important to a journalist,” said Zarrell. “The way we narrate things around the visuals when telling a story is getting to the thing people care about very quickly, because people don’t want to waste their time.”

The most difficult story for many writers to write is one about themselves.  If your story is a personal one, Pulos shared two exercises to prep your nut graf:

“Exercise One: To explain your story about what you do and who you are, you can ask a friend, colleague, someone you report to/reports to you to send you phrases about what they value for you, like you for, etc.

“Exercise Two: List your triumphs, great stuff, bad stuff; your age at the time; and moral of the story. Many people leave out the moral of the story when doing this exercise, but this is how I have cultivated many different stories with different clients.”

3. Show and (sparingly) tell.

“Our brains are neurologically wired to process visual images faster and more efficiently,” shared Stepanek. “Also it’s the fastest way to get an emotional impact along with information.”

For instance, she explained, if your story is about people, your audience wants to see those people. “It isn’t just about hearing what someone said, but it’s seeing their movement, conversation, etc.,” she said.

Because of this, images are a must-have.

“I won’t write anything that doesn’t have a visual element to it,” Zarrell said. “When I am creating a story, I build it around the visual. If there is a video from a newscast, then I will screen shot pictures from it and build a whole narrative around those pictures. There aren’t always visuals, so BuzzFeed uses a program called Capture that lets you go to a location where something is happening.”

When writing text to support your visuals, Zarrell encouraged restraint. “It is very easy for text to overwhelm an image,” she said. “If the image is powerful, it will speak for itself. If you are trying to explain it, then you are overreaching and it may not be as interesting.”

4. Visuals can help — and if you’re not careful, harm — your credibility.

Another reason photos and graphics are so important, said Stephanek, is that “visuals tend to have more credibility, because it isn’t someone saying something exists, but showing it exists.”

Care needs to be taken, though, that the visuals you select are authentic. There have been a lot of hoaxes this year with images. People spread them without thinking about it,” admitted Zarrell. “BuzzFeed is very careful about debunking everything we get. If it seems like it is too good to be true, it probably is.”

There are a few ways to verify an image’s accuracy. One way Zarrell recommended was Google’s reverse image search; you can find more digital verification tools in our Faster Fact-Checking series.

5. Video is the future.

As the evening wrapped up, Social Media Club’s conversation turned to the future of storytelling.

“YouTube and everybody else is predicting that two years from now 73 percent of everything that goes online will be video,” shared Stephanek. “I think citizen videos will still be very relevant as part of communicating with your news communities and people. But I think in the development of short-form video, video branding, and infographics, we’ll see professionals coming in and redefining it.”

She continued, “Martin Scorsese said in the next couple of years not knowing how to create a video and share that over mobile is going to seem as unusual as people now not knowing how to send an email.”

6. Finally, you gotta have faith.

Fear can squash the best stories. Although storytellers should strive to do their best, there are times when you have to take a chance and trust that your story is good enough.

“You just have to get out there and tell the story,” Pulos reminded attendees. “When people tell a story, there are people that will come up to them and tell them they will never forget the story they heard.”

Working on a story and need an expert source? ProfNet has thousands of folks available to help. Submit a query, search the more than 60,000 profiles on ProfNet Connect, or get timely experts and story ideas by email — all for free! Email profnet@profnet.com if you’d like help getting started.

Amanda Hicken is a media relations manager with PR Newswire for Journalists. Follow her at @ADHicken for tweets about the media, comic books, and her love of Cleveland. This post is based on the transcript and recap of the event, written by ProfNet community services specialist Polina Opelbaum.

Graphic modified from original by Jo Naylor/Flickr; used under CC by 2.0 license. Event photo from Social Media Club NYC/ProfNet.

4 thoughts on “6 Storytelling Tips from BuzzFeed and Other Digital Storytellers

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