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Editor, RTÉ Brainstorm
The Art of Telling Compelling Stories
It’s all about language, structure, and the hook
Academics and researchers are well versed in writing for academic journals and publications, but what about an article for the general public? The editor of RTÉ’s Brainstorm project discusses what is required to get a non-academic audience to click on your story.
This story begins a decade or so ago, back when Ireland was in the grip of the financial crisis and the banking disaster. An RTÉ employee began to wonder about the academics he was hearing on air and seeing on screen during that great national breakdown.
He was a big fan of academic rigour and insights and voices, but he noted that he wasn’t getting a lot of it. Well, that’s not quite true – he was hearing and seeing a lot of economists. But where were the historians, the sociologists, the philosophers, the scientists at a seminal moment in the life of the nation? Surely they had something to contribute to this discussion – and probably to other topics too. Was there a place for them?
That RTÉ employee was Rory Coveney, the organisation’s director of strategy. A few years later, Rory’s thoughts on academics and the media turned into a brainwave: What if there could be a dedicated place on the RTÉ website where academics and researchers could contribute their thoughts, insights, and perspectives on the matters of the day?
It would be a place where academics and researchers could get their expertise and research across to the general public. A place where they could rub shoulders with RTÉ’s own gallery of journalists and broadcasters. A place where new and diverse voices from Irish academia could emerge and develop and migrate to the broadcaster’s many TV and radio shows.
That brainwave became Brainstorm, a first-in-the-world partnership between academia and a national public-service media organisation. It’s an initiative made possible by the involvement and enthusiasm of founding partners University College Cork, NUI Galway, University of Limerick, Dublin City University, Technological University Dublin, Maynooth University, Ulster University, and strategic partner the Irish Research Council.
It’s a project which developed quickly from a website where academics and researchers can write about Ireland and the world into a flurry of radio shows, podcasts, videos, and events.
It is clear to me, as the project’s editor, that one constituency in particular has been essential for our success. It may sound obvious, but it’s the academics and researchers themselves who have really made Brainstorm possible. It’s because they bought into it with such great gusto from the outset that we have been able to keep on trucking.
They quickly saw a potential in Brainstorm that many of us involved on the coalface never quite saw initially to the same degree. They’ve been hugely generous with their time and expertise. They’ve recruited other academics, encouraged their colleagues to get in touch, and evangelised widely for Brainstorm. We really wouldn’t be telling this story without them.
The reason for this cheerleading from academics and researchers? They understood how Brainstorm could help them communicate their ideas to the general public.
There are many potential audiences that the academic and research community want to reach. Writing for academic journals or contributing at conferences are proven ways to reach peers, policy-makers, and funders and to tick those all-important impact boxes. But the general public are not at those conferences or reading those journals.
Academics quickly saw potential in Brainstorm… they’ve been hugely generous with their time and expertise.
The journals are behind onerous and ludicrously expensive paywalls (there’s an article to be written about how academics and researchers have been hoodwinked by academic publishers, but we’ll leave that one for another day). The conferences are niche and usually aimed at a peer-to-peer audience.
Sure, there are occasional mainstream media pick-ups of what’s published in those journals or said at those gatherings. But by and large, those accounts rely on a time-poor, resource-bereft and inexpert reporter or journalist who may not quite get the right gist or angle of the research at hand. And the PR lens which brings in the media in the first place may often highlight a part of the story which is not the actual hook at all.
No wonder so many researchers and academics are unhappy with how their work is represented in the mainstream media. It’s a common theme when experts see how their thinking has been shorthanded by an intermediary for a lay-person audience. After all, you know your work better than anyone else, so you should be the one telling the story.
One of the beauties of the Brainstorm approach is that the vast majority of the pieces we run on the website are written by the academics themselves. The articles are not filtered or summed up by a third party. The person named at the top of the page is the person who did the hard yards in the first place, put the work in, and wrote the piece you’re about to read. It’s their words summing up their thoughts, their analysis, their opinion.
Another beauty of the Brainstorm approach is that the audience for this work is the general public. Housed on the RTÉ website, which gets around 10 million visitors a month, Brainstorm is a way of reaching the people whose tax euros fund the research in the first place.
The stories are published alongside the day’s news, sport, business, lifestyle, culture, entertainment, and Gaeilge stories. When people scan and click onto the RTÉ website, the Brainstorm stories are part of the mix on the page. Academics’ pieces appear alongside the work of such well-known and respected broadcasters and commentators as Tony Connelly, Emma O’Kelly, Will Goodbody, and Claire Byrne.
The view from the dashboard
So what makes someone – be it your neighbour, your aunt, or the barista who made your skinny latte in the local café this morning – click on your story? What makes them choose your story to browse rather than something else on the RTÉ.ie page?
This is a question which occupies the mind of all editors day in and day out. A lot of our job is about analysis, because not all stories are equal. We’re always looking at how a story performs and what makes one story do a better job of attracting and retaining an audience than another.
Brainstorm is a proven way to communicate with the general public about your idea, your work, your expertise…
We have an online dashboard in front of us which is constantly being updated with stats and data. We can see that this story is appealing to women, that that story is resonating with 25–34-year-olds, and that both stories are holding people’s attention for an average of over three minutes or so.
Data like this is often useful, always horrifically addictive, and occasionally downright dangerous. Some editors will lean on the findings from their analytics to make judgement calls about future stories. If a story about red dresses worked in May, for example, a similar story dressed up slightly differently might work in September. Others will simply add this data to their gut instinct and previous learnings about the stories our audience want to read, and run in that direction.
So what’s in all of this for the academic? To be honest, not much in the data-analysis piece of the pie. Let’s remember that, first and foremost, you are not a journalist or editor skilled in the dark arts of media analytics and data. You’re probably better off!
But you’re interested in a site like Brainstorm because it’s a proven way to communicate with the general public about your idea, your work, your expertise, your bank of incredibly detailed knowledge about a specific subject area. Yes, you want an audience, but it’s the simple matter of communicating the story rather than having a story which breaks the internet which is why you’re doing this (though it would be nice to break the internet as well).
When I make presentations and host workshops about writing for Brainstorm, I talk a lot about three things: language, structure, and hooks. They’re the key attributes of how to tell a compelling story about your work in a way which draws in an audience. The story will come with a headline, photos, and audiovisual content, but there’s none of that gravy without the meat and spuds of the story in the first place.
Before we jump into these things, remember that academics and researchers have one hugely useful advantage when it comes to telling a compelling story. You can write. Some phrases may need to be turned, and some of those 300-word sentences need to be tucked into seven or eight shorter ones instead. But the pieces submitted to RTÉ Brainstorm usually require only light editing, and that’s something which is hugely appreciated by all editors.
Brainstorm stories are written in this awesome language called plain English (though we have also published pieces in Irish, Spanish, and Chinese). Brainstorm is not an academic journal, so the language has to be clear, concise, non-technical, and straightforward. No academese, please. That’s not for this audience.
Yes, I hear you. You’re saying that the PhD process has knocked this ability out of you. You can now only write in a way and style which makes sense to your peers who’ve also gone through the same tortuous process. You can cite your way through 14,000 words without breaking sweat, but writing 800 words in plain English for a general audience brings you out in a cold sweat.
But this audience is not going to stick around and absorb what you have to say if they can’t understand it. If the piece is littered with jargon like ‘interventions’, they’re going to click onto something else. If you want to reach this audience, you have to use the language you’d use when you’re talking to your neighbour, aunt, or barista. Ask for an intervention in the café tomorrow along with your morning coffee and see where it gets you.
Because you have 14,000 words to mull over in a journal article, you have ample elbowroom to make your points, get your citation ducks in a row, and write plenty of those long sentences that academics are so fond of. With a 900-word piece for a general audience who don’t give two hoots which of your colleagues you’re referencing, it’s a very different kettle of fish. You need to know what you’re doing from the get-go.
This is where structure comes in. You have to get your main points lined up and dealt with in the first couple of paragraphs. Why will the reader click on this story? What will make them stick with your piece for the duration? How do you get your research into the mix in such a way that it makes sense?
Thinking about structure allows you to prioritise and streamline your points. It means you have to deduce what the general reader will take away and how you include the relevant details about your work.
The most important aspect of any Brainstorm piece – especially those that have hit the mark with our audience – is the hook. The hook is what draws a reader in and keeps them reading. When they got up this morning, they may have not realised they were going to spend five minutes reading a piece on medieval Irish words, or to enjoy two sociologists reviewing The Young Offenders, or to pore over how Irish welfare spending compares with the rest of Europe. But that’s what happened, because the hook drew them in.
The hook often comes down to timing. For example, we’ve seen huge interest in Brainstorm stories about Brexit and climate change in 2019 as people search for new thinking about these issues. There may be perceived wisdom that people don’t want detail or depth, but we have the data to turn that one on its head. If there’s a story with a different angle on these issues, it will often do well.
Other hooks are to do with what people are genuinely interested in. We know that there are some topics (like sleep) and themes (popular culture) which will draw in readers. At all times, you’ve an eye out for the hook and how best to deploy it. You know that this is the thing which will make people read on.
You may know everything there is to know about a particular area, but can you convey it in a way that holds the attention, curiosity, and interest of the reader?
Of course, as I said earlier, you’re not a journalist, so it’s often the case that you won’t know what the hook is. That’s where the editor comes in. When I’m pitched a story, either by email or face to face at a Brainstorm campus workshop, I’m looking for a hook. It may be in the fifth paragraph of the email, or it may take you ten minutes to get around to it, but I’ll be looking for it. The hook is what makes your story really sing and stand out.
The art of telling a compelling story comes down to communication. You may know everything there is to know about a particular area, but can you convey it in a way that holds the attention, curiosity, and interest of the general reader? What is it about your work which will make them sit up and take notice? Can you construct the narrative in a way that will make them happy they clicked your way?
At Brainstorm, we believe there’s a great relationship to be fostered between our writers – academics and researchers – and our readers, the general public. Both sides are coming to the table with different aims and expectations, but we’re just happy to be the ones providing the bridge between the two.