Televangelist and author Joel Osteen always start his sermons off with a good story. Some commercials don’t show the product they’re selling until at the end– once the story is told. Even a good marketer will tell you a story before they try to get you to buy whatever they ‘re selling. My good friend Byron Pitts, the host of “ABC Nightline” and I have a saying, “Did you take them there?” What we mean by this is– did you tell a good enough story that your viewing audience felt like they were there on the story with you?

Use emotion

So, what makes a great story? Well, it should be easy on the ears. Don’t get so complex or so deep that the viewer has a hard time following the story. You should have some conflict, emotion, and/or element of surprise. People love drama even though we never admit we do, but just look at the ratings for reality shows. If you can’t say Amen just say OUCH!

You can never go wrong with having some emotion in a story. Emotion touches the heart. There is a great book called “Aim for the Heart” by Al Tompkins, in which Al reminds us all that people remember what they feel. If you aim for the heart with your story then you will never fail to grab your viewers and compel them to watch. You can also do that by personalizing it. By personalizing it I mean narrow your focus.

Personalize it

Let’s say your church is big on helping folks in need, something that all churches should be doing. Every Saturday your church is giving out groceries, clothes, haircuts etc., to those in the community who fell on hard times. By personalizing it I mean don’t just do a story about the church not having the resources to continue to help the community. Talk about a family or person depending on this help and how without it they don’t know what they will do. Make me feel for this individual, because honestly, I will not care about the church as much as I would for a family or an individual. Narrow your focus and aim for the heart.

Something else to consider is that sound sets the scene and/or mood. To understand what I mean, play some oceans sounds and close your eyes. You’ll start thinking you’re on the beach. When telling a story, add some natural sound from the location of where the story is coming from.

Rules of engagement

A good story has a beginning, middle, and end. It will also answer the questions who, what, when, where and why. With these ingredients you will engage your audience. After all, that is what great storytelling does. We all have short attention spans, so the first few seconds of your story are crucial. Here are four motivators:

  1. Money
  2. Safety
  3. Health
  4. Community

Now if my opening line was, “This man made millions with just fifty-two dollars. Do you want to know how he did it?” Would you continue to listen? What if the story started with someone saying, “If I knew what I know now I would not be sick.” Would you continue to watch? What about if a headline read, “Ten of the most unsafe cars to drive,” would you read the article? How about “5 neighborhoods in your community that are crumbling and why”?

I like to say “Get them, grab them, and sit them down.” Get them, meaning get their attention. Grab them by making them want to watch. Then sit them down to watch the entire story.

Helping others tell a story

Ok here is the stuff you will not learn in the textbooks or classroom. The true art of storytelling starts with the storyteller. If you’re the person telling the story then it starts with you, and you would use the tips I mentioned above. But what if you’re getting someone else to tell their story? If you’re talking to someone for your streaming service and they feel comfortable around you and they forget the cameras and lights are there, then you will get the most out of them provided you ask the right questions.

Here are some Don’ts:
• Don’t ask two-part questions
• Don’t lead the interviewer
• Don’t editorialize
• Don’t use assumptions
• Don’t use biased words
Also, don’t ask the question “How do you feel?” Set it up with a place setter. “When you first gave your life to Christ, how did you feel?” You are now asking them to tell a story.

Here are some Do’s:

  • Let the subject finish their thought
  • Listen, Listen and Listen
  • Do ask Who, What, When, Where and How questions, such as –
  • Who was with you?
  • What happened?
  • Why do you care?
  • When did you get the news?
  • Where was your family at the time?
  • How did that affect you?

If you do that, you’ll get answers from the heart. The goal is to have a conversation, not an interview.

Be sincere

Bottom line: You have to care about people, and people don’t care how much you know till they know how much you care. I learned that fact first-hand when I was working for CNN.

On October 12, 2000 the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen, killing 17 soldiers. We traveled to Norfolk, Virginia where the USS Cole was based. We went there to see if we could get any of the family members to talk. We arrived at the home of the mother of one of the soldiers that was killed, and outside the home was news vans and satellite trucks lined up and down the street. We were told the mother didn’t want to talk to any media by another member of the media. I was with Gary Tutman, who is one of the best journalists I ever worked with, but an even better person. He went up to the door very respectfully and someone from the family came to the door and opened it. The next thing I saw was Gary waving his hand, telling me to grab my camera and come inside. The look on the faces of the other reporters was priceless. After the interview was over, the mother said to Gary, “Do you know why I talked to you and nobody else?” Gary replied “No ma’am.” She said “Because I watch you on TV and you care about people. It shows in your work.”

She was right he really does care and you can’t fake that or teach it. Needless to say, that story was filled with a lot of emotion and yes, we “Took them there.” Yes, you do need facts, but it’s the emotion that will have the lasting effect on your audience. What touches the heart will win over facts every time. I heard a reporter say once “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a great story.”

Final tips
Here are some final things to consider as you prepare to tell me a story. Plan your work and work your plan. You heard the old saying “We never plan to fail, we just fail to plan.”

Listen to who you’re talking to. Little things might unfold.

Be patient. Sometimes the story isn’t what you thought it was.

Chances are your story could be better. Stay focused and be ready to adjust.

I remember we traveled to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to do a story on Oseola McCarthy. Great story! Ms. McCarthy was a washerwoman who despite her low-paying job, became The University of Southern Mississippi’s most famous benefactor. She drew global attention when she announced that part of her lifesavings, $150,000,000 would go to students who needed
financial assistance. When we were about to leave, I ask her for some words of advice. After all she was around 90 years old when I met her. She told me, “Always be ready.”

Last but not least is — have some fun and show no fear.

Andre Jones is founder and CEO of Another Jones Production

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