How To Tell A Good Story: Make It Small

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining 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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Comments (6)

  1. By Beverly Mahone:

    As a journalist, I’m not sure if I totally agree with your explanation. I do believe telling a story through the eyes of one person is an effective way of getting a story out. BUT one man losing his door as the result of a hurricane isn’t nearly as dramatic as seeing many people walking around–perhaps crying– looking for personal belongings. The Door story could’ve been a side bar to a much bigger story–which would have been the overall impact of the hurricane with a different angle.

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Dear Beverly,

    Thank you for stopping by the blog and leaving a comment. I agree with your comment. By the time Koppel and crew arrived in Honduras, the story you’re describing – one featuring many people walking around, perhaps crying – had been done for 72 hours. The Door was, essentially, a “side bar” story, but one that added depth to a story that had already been told.

    The same is true with media spokespersons. So often, I see spokespersons spouting data without meaning, which leaves the public without the context they need to fully understand the larger picture. The strategy suggested in this article is intended to help remedy that situation. To be sure, this method of storytelling is not and should not be the only method of storytelling spokespersons use – but rather should be viewed as a useful tool in the spokesperson’s arsenal.

    Please stop by again, and thanks again for your thoughtful comment!

    Best wishes,

  3. By Wes Bleed:

    Couldn’t agree more that the “story” often gets lost amid the facts and figures. People have been trained to listen to stories all their lives, and they respond when someone can point out the victims, villains and victors and help them understand what it all means.

  4. By Brad Phillips:

    Wes – thank you for visiting the blog and for your comments. You’re absolutely right – for better or worse, we’re conditioned to understand the world through pre-existing archetypes.

  5. By Eugeia:

    Brad: I love your articles and videos. They are so full of wonderful in-depth content. Your media and PR experience also show in the outstanding way you respond to comments. You really set the bar in that respect, and the lessons I’m learning are unexpected pleasures. Many thanks for these gifts.

  6. By Brad Phillips:


    I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to receive comments like yours. Thank you for the kind words and inspiration – and more importantly, thank you for letting me know that these articles/videos are helping you!

    Please remain in touch. 🙂


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