Focus Your Story

Think of yourself as a marksman. Your rifle is your radio station. Your bullet is your story — speeding through the air. Your target is the listener’s ear.

A direct hit for you is successful communication. There’s nothing random about it.

In radio, you only get one shot. Before you pull the broadcast trigger, set your sites and take careful aim. You want precise story focus.

As News Director, your most important task may be helping a reporter set their sites on a clear story target.

A sharply focused story idea can be summarized in a sentence: the “focus statement.” It is more than stating a story’s angle or theme. A theme is too broad. An angle is too vague.

The focus statement will usually provide three main elements: Who the story is about, What action that person or persons are doing, and Why they are doing it.

This Who-What-Why formula forces one to serve the natural story-telling power of radio. Most stories worth devotion of your time (both work time and air time) will conform to this because a) the most compelling stories are always about people, b) good stories convey progression or action, and c) it all has to matter to us — so there needs to be an explanation behind these people and these actions. The why for them is usually the why for us.

This is not to say that other story structures don’t have merit or allow focus. Some stories take as their subject an event, or a process, or an issue… But listeners will connect more readily and deeply if they can hold in their minds a picture of someone doing something.

Example: You get word of a bad day on Wall Street. The numbers reflect certain trends in the economy. You could report the numbers. But you choose to tell a story about an investor who refused to sell because he sees the trend differently. Your story includes the numbers and the trends but within a more engaging story.

It is imperative that story focus be articulated as early in the editorial process as possible, to avoid wasted effort later in reporting and writing the story.

To develop a rigorous routine in advance of all feature story assignments, consider using this worksheet to develop the story plan. It extracts best-thinking going into the story: Samples → Story Visioning Worksheet

The biggest obstacle to finding focus early is lack of information. If certain facts are unknown, certain individuals are not yet proven to be involved, or certain outcomes have yet to be established, then you may be prevented from defining the exact focus of your intended story. Nonetheless, it is possible to choose a working focus statement that serves to guide the story early on. If the facts fail to support the original hypothesis, you may choose to change the focus or kill the story.

Other common obstacles to story focus reside in poor planning or lazy habits. Reporters often proceed with vague notions of what might be interesting or important in a story, hoping to discover a focus somewhere along the way. It would be better to aim for what ideally would make it compelling and strive for that. Other reporters lack discipline and keep changing their focus as they go. The sharper the plan at the outset, the easier it will be to stick to it.

Finally, still others allow their focus to widen as they incorporate more and more aspects into their story so that the original thrust of their story fades and they end up with too broad a view without a meaningful focal point.

News Directors should make a distinction between a story idea and a story assignment. An idea does not become an assignment until it has been vetted to the extent that it can be articulated in a focus statement. When the focus statement defines a story clearly — and you deem it interesting and important — then you approve it as an assignment complete with a coverage plan and proper deadlines.