The right tool for the job
In my last blog I shared feature writer Jon Henley’s tips for writing good feature stories and suggested how we could apply them to digital learning content. One tip he shared during his Guardian Masterclass on digital storytelling was to identify the right type of media to tell different parts of the story. I felt it was worth expanding on this, hence the arrival of this unplanned, additional blog. So let’s remind ourselves what works best when…
There’s nothing better than video for capturing natural phenomena, conflict or raw human emotion. At CGK we’ve been doing more work with interactive video which is a great example of how you can integrate learning interactions within an overarching narrative.
The barriers to video production have been significantly reduced in recent years by more available bandwidth and for the YouTube generation there’s also an expectation for it: they learn through video out of choice, as and when they need to. And whilst nothing is going to top the video produced by the professionals, the emergence of new devices like Go Pro that can capture high quality output at low cost do offer opportunities that didn’t exist before.
Looping video and background sound effects as used in The Guardian’s Firestorm may seem like an unnecessary extravagance but they seem to have the magic effect of bringing the words to life (providing additional auditory and visual context). They also add to the seamlessness of the finished article.
Graphics are great for grabbing attention. The best ones tell a story far better than words alone. Use them to arouse (pleasant or unpleasant) emotion or create surprise or confusion. The image of the Holmes family taking refuge under a jetty during the bush fire was shared around the world and many of us still remember it. The Guardian used this as the cover page for Firestorm because they knew it struck a chord. Let’s follow suit and ban the perma-tan professional models, replacing them with high impact, visceral photography (where appropriate).
We’ve also all seen the rise in popularity of info graphics lately. Rightly so – when done well, they can make the presentation of seemingly dull data things of beauty. Does ‘Information is beautiful’ ring a bell with anybody?
Audio can be just as effective as video when you want to convey emotion. The radio does it rather well, don’t you think? It can also offer a level of intimacy that video sometimes can’t – perhaps because with audio it feels like you’re the only observer or someone is speaking directly to you.
At CGK we’ve tended to use audio exclusively as a means to add depth to character or give our experts a voice. Verbatim audio (unless it’s there to support low literacy or English as a second language) ceases to enhance the experience and instead muddies the message (dual coding). Recently we’ve been creating full audio versions of some of our courses: genuine, audio led alternatives to interactive content, which you can download and listen to like a radio programme. The inclusion of subtle ambient background noise really helped make the experience feel authentic and prevented our characters from sounding like they’d been trapped inside a tin can.
And then, last but not least: the words…
Despite the ease with which we can integrate multimedia into our learning these days, the words still matter. Maybe more than ever, now they’re competing with all the bells and whistles at our disposal. After all, most of the time the words are still doing the heavy lifting in terms of delivering the core learning.
Jon recommends using text for delivering “different bits of evidence”. For us in elearning I think we can equate ‘evidence’ to facts, key learning points, critical bits of information. The words can also help provide invaluable consistency and personality across the entire piece. For all of the dramatic imagery and video in Firestorm, it is the words that speak to me most of all. The headings alone entice me: ‘Born to born’, ‘Fuelling the flames’, ‘Inferno’…
When discussing text, Jon focused on the classics, namely the importance of:
• A cracking opening sentence
• A well-structured middle
• An insightful, impactful ending
Scarcely new stuff – but easy to forget or gloss over when under pressure to meet deadlines. So how can we execute them well?
Every wordsmith worth their salt knows the importance of an opening sentence. It sets the stage, draw us in. It is perhaps THE most important sentence in any piece of writing. As Stephen King put it: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Jon categorised ‘the lead’ into four types of opening sentence:
• The anecdotal – hooks us with an illustrative vignette
• The scene setter - immerses us in a place/ atmosphere
• The narrative - drops us in historical context
• The ‘zinger’ – comes out of nowhere and grabs us (think Ford Maddox Ford’s “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” or Camus’ “Mother died today”)
I’d like to think our scriptwriters always deliberate over the opening sentence: how to make the most impact, which ‘type’ of lead is most appropriate. But despite many years in the industry, I know I’ve failed here at times. Written too much preamble instead of beginning in medias res (Latin: in the midst of things) - in the heart of the action, where interest and suspense are there from the very start.
It’s not always easy (Jon can spend as much time writing the first paragraph as he does the rest of an article) but it gets effective results. If more of our learning said “Listen. Come in here!” we’d be on to a good thing.
But of course the best opening sentences in the world are worth nothing without the right material and the right variety of material thereafter (as per the appropriate use of media referenced above). Now we need to layer in the detail, but we need to do it an engaging and lively way.
In feature writing, the lead tends to be followed with the ‘nut graph’, the paragraph which explains the news value of the story in a nutshell. It justifies the story by telling readers what the news story is about, why it’s important and why they should read it. Apparently reporters at The Philadelphia Inquirer call it the “You may have wondered why we invited you to this party?” section.
All good elearning scriptwriters do a similar thing on what we’ve traditionally called the ‘what’s in it for me?’ (WIIFM) screen. Here we explain what’s in the module, why it’s relevant to the learner and what they will get out of it. Thankfully these days it’s unusual to spot the boring long list of objectives (‘In this module you will…’) and we tend to treat the WIIFM much more imaginatively. But we could take a look at some nut graphs and the skilled way in which some journalists can capture the heart of the story swiftly and adeptly, without breaking the flow or lessening the impact of the lead.
For the meat of the story, Jon recommends thinking in terms of chapters, or ideas, illustrated with scenes and characters from real life. Likewise, at CGK we recommend breaking learning down into bite-sized topics, using scenarios to provide context and authenticity. In Firestorm, Jon tried to end each chapter on suspense, to keep his audience hooked and eager for the next.
When breaking up a body of learning into smaller pieces we can use this device to the same end, especially when we know the learner will complete them in a linear order. When the learner can dip in and out at will or has their own tailored journey through the content, we can still make use of story arcs within the individual resources to drive engagement, but also support the learning with an overarching narrative as part of a wider campaign.
Jon also suggests following the rule of threes, e.g. Fact, Example, Quote. This resonates with me as it echoes our well-worn but effective learning model PEET, in which we Present, Exemplify, Explore (and Test). There again, perhaps the world of journalism and elearning are not so far apart.
For Jon, the second most importance sentence is usually the last. This is where we can provide a sense of resolution, or surprise our readers with a twist. We can circle back, finish where we started, bookend. His words of advice: “Put effort into your ending. Make it resonate”.
And on that note, I say no more.
Well that's all folks! We hope you enjoyed the evolution of journalism journey. If you have any burning question you want us to answer then please get in touch, we would love to hear from you.