Teaching Examples


Video storytelling tips from a veteran reporter
May 21, 2007, 1:31 pm
Filed under: journalism, storytelling, training, video

When Ken Speake was a young TV reporter, he received a bit of criticism from an older, wiser journalist: “You don’t have a style.” To improve, he was told to choose two reporters he really liked, then watch and analyze everything they did for two weeks.

At the end of the two weeks, he reported back to his mentor, who gave him his next task: “Now copy them.”

In this way, young grasshopper, you too can improve.

I was introduced to the work of Ken Speake in a column written by Al Tompkins a few months ago. What I didn’t learn from the column was how humble — and how sincere — Speake is. What’s more, he’s a natural teacher. If you get the chance to see him, go.

Preparation. Everyone tells us about the importance of luck and hard work in journalism. A veteran such as Speake adds that it’s vital also to prepare yourself — so you know how to make the most of your good luck when you find it. Learn, study, think about options. Not prepared? All the good luck in the world won’t help you.

Curiosity. After years and years on the job, a journalist can think, “Ho hum, another state fair, another this, another that.” Speake advises you to find something in the story about which you can be curious. Work at it. No matter how boring the story is, instead of plodding through it with your mind on finishing it and getting rid of it, think hard and come up with an angle that makes you ask questions for which you don’t already know the answers.

“Everybody sees the ‘normal’ story,” Speake said. “I don’t want to do the normal story.”

Details. After showing a story about a crime scene investigation in an open outdoor area, Speake answered some questions about the variety of shots showing, for example, a police officer finding a bloody leaf and placing it in an evidence container; a checkered cloth stuffed inside a brown paper bag. These gave an unusual behind-the-scenes feel to the story.

“Detail makes all the difference in the world,” he said. Details not only allow the viewer to feel like an insider; they also add to the reporter’s credentials. That is, you are more believable when you supply important details.

Awareness. “Be aware of your surroundings,” Speake said. This means using not only your eyes but also your ears. “The best photographers shoot with their ears,” he said. The real story might not be where the camera is pointing — what you hear can tip you off to that.

I was struck by Speake’s obvious enthusiasm for the work he did for three decades. “Sound is so cool,” he said gleefully. He showed the same enthusiasm for a change in his job requirements — when he was asked to write his stories for the KARE-11 Web site. Instead of looking at it as a chore, he said, “I was excited to be able to add so much detail.”

Many in the audience seemed to be inspired by the examples Speake showed us. There were several questions about how he managed to produce such interesting stories.

One technique that came out was a real spirit of collaboration. “It’s important, when you start [at the scene], to talk it over with your photographer.” Speake gave a lot of credit to the photographers who shot the stories he showed (he didn’t shoot any of the examples he showed us), but he also made it clear that he didn’t expect a reporter and a photographer to go their separate ways. Sometimes one of the two must explain to the other exactly what he’s going after — and sometimes it won’t be completely clear until after the script is written. He also did not expect his photographer to be a slave to the reporter. It sounded to me like they were equal partners.

One of the most telling details Speake shared was this:

“I never know how I’m going to be able to tell the story until I go over the tape.” This might happen in the car, driving back to the office; he’s replaying the footage and watching it on the camera’s little monitor. What struck me about this statement was the openness, the flexibility, that it revealed. When he was out on the scene, interviewing people, discussing options with the photographer, Speake surely had a lot of ideas about the potential for this story. But in the end, he must defer to the visuals. He has to consider what the pictures show before he writes, before he thinks about what to write.

I’ve never had any broadcast journalism training. Luckily I had a good dose of film studies, so I know a little about framing shots and advancing the action visually. But this partnership between the audio and the visual, this mutuality of word and image, this way of choosing how to tell the story — it’s new to me, and very challenging. But it’s so cool.

Listening to Ken Speake, I had a series of tiny breakthroughs. Some things about video storytelling make more sense to me now, thanks to him.

One of the best things I gained from his talk was a new appreciation for how standard practices and “following the rules” might be responsible for some of the things that are so annoying about so much broadcast news video. Apart from the endless stories about crime and highway accidents on the local TV news, there’s that awful tone of voice so many reporters use. They “punch out” certain words in such an artificial, mechanical way, it seems as if they don’t even know what they’re saying. They sound inhuman.

Speake’s narrations had none of that. He stressed that video is more intimate than print, and you must “write the way people talk” in a broadcast script. He also emphasized the need to make a connection between what’s in the video and the viewer’s real life.

I don’t get that from most TV news stories. But Speake’s stories showed us that it is possible.

(Ken Speake spoke at the National Writers Workshop in Wichita, Kansas, on May 19, 2007.)

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

thanks for this precis on his talk – sounds very interesting. i was struck by the similarity of his ideas to that of what Anthropologists try to be and do. Re: awareness – we talk about cultivating hyper-receptivity, a sort of openness to seeing people’s behaviour and language in new light. re: curiosity – we aim to be ‘radically open to persuasion’ by the data, or what our informants’ share with us; the idea being not to assume we already understand them before really listening. And finally, looking for the significance of everyday life details is a key part of our stock & trade because of the substantial, yet under-appreciated symbolism and world-making weight that edl tasks, phrases and artifacts carry. This especially in relation to characterizations of difference. Neat to see so many overlapping principles. Thanks again.

Comment by Jay

Interesting to have you make the comparison, Jay. I have been reading Clifford Geertz’s “The Interpretation of Cultures” (1973), and I’m getting a lot of ideas from it. I think maybe anthropologists seek to uncover, or decipher, a narrative in the culture — or to understand the people’s narrative of themselves. Journalists, on the other hand, invent a narrative. When we do it right, it’s accurate — that is, it reflects reality pretty well. We don’t always get it right, but the idea is to do our best.

Comment by Mindy McAdams




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