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POSTED 22.9.2017

Writing: the most precious storytelling skill of all

“There’s a million stories in this city, and we’ve got none of ‘em,” a news editor of mine used to say.

By Ciaran Byrne

Chris Boffey, the plain-speaking news editor of the Sunday Telegraph used that line every Tuesday morning to get his reporters up and at ‘em.

One of my go-to sources as young journalist was a trip to London’s High Court to see who was suing who.

There were no online search facilities in 1998, so I’d hop into a taxi and spend an hour sifting through brown folders in the Royal Courts of Justice reading room at the top of Fleet Street.

I’d flick through the civil writs and find a gem; a credit card firm suing a professional boxer or a trail of debt left by a well-known ‘motivational guru’ who had failed to pay any of his bills after a UK speaking tour.

My favourite was a shaggy dog story; I discovered that an elderly Baronet was taking his ex-wife to court for custody of the couple’s mongrel called Jasper.

This ‘Downton Abbey’ style tug-of-war caught the imagination of the editor and the story ended up on page three, followed by pick-up on BBC News and in several international newspapers.

In the brutally competitive world of Fleet Street newspapers, you just had to have a stock of story ideas; you were paid to spot the must-read hooks, the human stories, the characters and quirky angles that are the essential ingredients of any top-quality news and feature. Easy!

Except of course, it wasn’t easy. It’s tough finding stories and you need to know where to look.

As I discovered in journalism, and now as someone who works every week with brands and businesses, it’s not everyone’s forte.

That’s why there’s been such an explosion in the number of journalists involved in content marketing — they know how to find and put stories together and crystallise messages. They’ve been doing it for centuries.

Every so often buzzwords take told in the corporate world. Many of them such as “core competency” “leverage” “scalable” and “solution” simply belong on jargon death row. You would never use them in a conversation with friends or family, so why use them at all?

“Storytelling”, in the corporate world at least, also at times seems to be a phrase that is in danger of eating itself.

In a world where jargon is Enemy No 1 and meaningless bullshit can abound, the term and others such as ‘chief storyteller’ already sound a little trite.

But whether story purists like it or not, the phrase has sticking power because storytelling has been around forever.

At StoryLab, we use the term storytelling — or storytellers — sparingly. We’re reporters first — we bring our journalism experience into businesses and boardrooms.

We help brands to spot those characters, those human stories, those readable nuggets, the bit of magic and personality in their people that can lift the narrative away from pie charts, facts, and processes.

We do that by falling back on those reporting skills and the precious skill of good writing. For us, quality content all starts with the written word.

If I had one single bit of advice for a young graduate or student interested in media, it would be this: learn to write well, make good writing your number one skill — it will pay you back time and time again.

Everything that we create at StoryLab stems from good writing. What comes after may end up being crafted into a film, podcast, press release or infographic. But all this good content starts with that very first meeting when we put a pen to good old-fashioned paper and ask a client: “So, tell us the story so far….”

If you would like a hand with telling your story, or getting PR advice, give us a call on +353 (0) 1 685 3029.