How To Tell A Good Story: Make It Small

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 online, so I paraphrased the man’s quote. The words may have been slightly different, but the meaning is the same.