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.
|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
"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
- 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.