How To Tell A Good Story: Make It Small

Written by Brad Phillips on December 3, 2010 – 7:12 am

I was working at ABC’s Nightline when Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in 1998.

The storm’s impact was catastrophic. Early news estimates placed the number of dead in the thousands and the number of homeless in the hundreds of thousands.

Three days passed by the time anchor Ted Koppel and his crew made it to the Honduran capital. The magnitude of the hurricane had already been widely reported, and they knew that a half-hour broadcast highlighting the number of deaths wouldn’t add much to the story.

Mr. Koppel called into the Washington office upon his arrival and told us he didn’t know what he was going to report that night. He said he and the crew planned to walk around to try to find a good story.

Photo Credit: Yuri Cortez - AFP

During their walk, they came across a man with a shovel. Since the man was surrounded by debris, it was tough to figure out what he was digging.

“My house was destroyed,” he said. “But I built the front door of my house with my own hands, and damn it, I want it back.”


That poignant moment became the backbone of a half-hour program called “The Door,” one of the most moving news broadcasts I’ve ever seen. The entire 30 minutes was focused on that man – who he was, what happened to him and his family, and what they were going to do next.

The story succeeded for this reason: telling a small story well allows the public to extrapolate and understand a larger story. It’s tough to visualize what “one million homeless people” look like, but it’s easier when you put an individual face to a larger story.

Media spokespersons too often make the mistake of telling the public everything – or of keeping their entire media interview at the 35,000-foot level. Instead, find a small story that is emblematic of your organization’s work, and use that story to help the public understand the bigger picture.

*Note: Nightline transcripts from 1998 aren’t available on-line, so I paraphrased the man’s quote. The words may have been slightly different, but the meaning is the same.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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