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Storytelling in the Digital Age - 12/10/2013 -

Amanda Kaiser
Your best tools for engaging readers in a digital environment may still be the things you learned (or should have learned) in school.

By Carla Kalogeridis

"We’re not a changing industry, but we have changed. At the core of everything, there’s still a story,” said Eric Ferkenhoff.

Ferkenhoff, assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, gave many pieces of advice at Association Media & Publishing’s recent Chicago conference, including what he says is a cardinal sin of journalism: Never begin an article with a quote.

Oh, well.

If anything, Ferkenhoff’s keynote address, "Storytelling in a Digital Environment,” proved how much a mastery of the basics of good writing and communicating come into play in our new digital world. Why? Because you have limited space and time to connect with an over-stimulated reader who will drop you in five words if you fail to engage.

"Whether you’re communicating in digital or print, the two most important questions to answer for your reader are ‘So what?’ and ‘Why now?’” Ferkenhoff told the group. "But in writing for the digital medium, each paragraph is like a page in a book. You’d better give enough information to whet their appetite so they get to the next paragraph.”

To make sure you hit the mark, Ferkenhoff says test each story on yourself. "Understand yourself as an audience member,” he said. "Ask yourself why you’re writing that particular article and why now.”

Ferkenhoff’s presentation encouraged questions from the audience, and one association editor wanted to know how to use the principles of storytelling when the topic is dry yet important to members. "The key to making boring topics interesting is to make them personal,” he advised. "Speak to the reader as an individual.”

For example, even with a mundane topic, he explained, you can tell the reader what the cascading effect is of x, y, z and how it’s going to affect them and others in their industry. To tell a good story in your article, he added, imagine that you are explaining the topic to someone at a party.

"And don’t just go to the officials or experts,” he said. "Go to the people who are impacted.”

In addition to never beginning an article with a quote, here are a few more reminders from Ferkenhoff when it comes to storytelling in association publications:

  • Make an effort to write well. "To be clever with a phrase is just as exciting to you as it is to the reader,” he said.
  • Use smaller pieces of quotes and your own clever language to put the quote in context of your storytelling.
  • Don’t bury the lead. "Remember that when you take a story and switch media, you are switching up the audience demographic,” he said. "Recognize that because it could change your lead.”
  • Don’t make your writing so important that you stand out as the main subject of the story.
  • If you raise a question, don’t forget to answer it — soon.

Another attendee wanted some advice about writing good marketing materials, and Ferkenhoff said that storytelling should be employed there, too. "The selling point is the background music that plays throughout the marketing piece while you are telling the story,” he said.

When asked whether his students have expressed a preference for print or digital content, Ferkenhoff said that he’s seen a recent throwback to print. "Young people see a whole banquet in front of them,” he said. "Some want to nibble a little bit of everything, while others want to pick their favorite and gorge on it.”

In the digital world, he sees his students showing a clear interest in interactive articles. Particularly in tweets and Facebook, he said, they look for the visual component. "When writing for the new generation of professionals, you’ll be more successful in engaging them if you give them a visual in social media that makes them want to see the print story, which in turn teases them to go to the website to view the video,” he said.

In the end, Ferkenhoff reminded the association publishing teams that regardless of the medium, they are in the translation business. "You are a translator between the subject and your audience,” he said. "That’s how younger and older teach each other — through storytelling.”

Carla Kalogeridis is editorial director of Association Media & Publishing. For more information on upcoming Association Media & Publishing educational events, visit www.associationmediaandpublishing.org.


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