The Art of the Intro

You would think that being the author of your own story would give you the freedom and leeway to be as creative as you want. No one else is touching that script; you and you alone are responsible for crafting the story and keeping your audience hooked. After all, who knows your story better that you?

But despite a reporter’s excitement and knowledge of their story, you’d be surprised how often they fail at their own scripts; relying on familiar writing crutches that take all the enthusiasm out of a story.

Many reporters simply trip out of the starting gate.

In TV and radio news, a script requires an “intro.” It’s the introduction read by an anchor or host as a way to prepare the audience for your story. In a way, it’s a promise – if you stick with us for the next two or three minutes, you’re going to see something worthwhile.

But no matter how good a reporter’s story is, a weak intro will undermine it immediately, and cause viewers and listeners to tune out.

Whether some reporters are rushed for time, lazy, or uncreative, they tend to fall on a cliched final line before their package rolls:

“John Smith has more.”

“Jane Doe reports.”

“Bob Jones explains.”

… if the last line of your intro is a promise, then these hackneyed examples are promising the audience that they will be bored by the upcoming story. The package itself hasn’t even aired yet, but the reporter has taken all the wind out of the sails with their weak writing.

Many young reporters struggle with this, including me. Being a reporter means you are constantly pressed for time, and I fell into a bad habit of cranking out the easiest intro I could think of so that I could devote more time to writing and editing my package. When I look back on some of my favorite stories, I cringe; the package itself may be great, but some of my intros were weak, uninspired, and told nothing to the viewer. When I showed my work to mentors, my intros were a regular topic. “The intro doesn’t fit the tone of the piece,” I was told.

So I looked for ways to improve. Surprisingly, network TV news didn’t offer much help, as many reporters were well entrenched in their bad habits. Instead I found my inspiration in radio.

The more I listened to NPR, the more I appreciated the way they crafted their words. In radio, you don’t have the luxury of pictures, graphics, monitors or good-loooking anchors to keep your audience’s attention. All you have are your writing skills. And NPR reporters have mastered the art of the intro.

“John Smith has more,” doesn’t cut it when your goal is to keep people from tuning away.

Let’s look at some examples from a recent episode of All Things Considered. Written in bold are the final lines read by the anchor before the reporter’s package rolls.

All week, people have been talking about a guy who doesn’t like talking. Playing in the NFL means speaking to the media. It’s in the contract. Seattle Seahawks running back, Marshawn Lynch, was fined $50,000 this season for violating the league’s media policy – same thing last season. In the lead up to the Super Bowl, he has stiff-armed thousands of media members in Phoenix. And as NPR’s Tom Goldman reports, that’s only getting him more attention.

This first example gives us the basic setup about Marshawn Lynch and his relationship with the media before the Super Bowl. It tells us all about his fines and his silence toward reporters. But then reporter Tom Goldman gives us a juicy hint at what’s to come when he says it’s giving Lynch more attention. Now as a listener, I want to know what kind of attention Lynch is receiving.

Now, the story about a mother and daughter bound through impersonation. Comedian Maria Bamford imitates her mother for laughs on stage, and that got NPR’s Alix Spiegel wondering about how that might have affected their relationship.

This is a little more informal, and it works for this entertainment story. Don’t be afraid to put a little of yourself into your script – if you asked questions or wondered about things, say it! Take your audience on the journey of how the story came together.

The number of measles cases from the outbreak linked to Disneyland has now risen to at least 98. But measles remains extremely rare in the United States. As NPR’s Jason Beaubien reports, that’s not the case in many other parts of the world.

Beaubien pulls off a little technique I like to call “more than meets the eye.” Give your audience an established set of facts, then turn it on its head and look at it another way. A story about measles in America is something everybody has heard, but when you use that close-to-home as a way to contrast the conditions elsewhere, it makes your audience go “Oh, I never thought of that.” You audience may think they know something, but you can give them a cold splash of reality.

First, the good news – Siegfried Meinstein is not dead. And the 94-year-old Ohio man likes it that way. The bad news is that the Internal Revenue Service thinks otherwise. Meinstein spoke with ABC 6 in Columbus, Ohio and he explained he realized something was wrong when his tax return was rejected last year.

Think of your intro as a tease to your story; keep your audience glued to the action. This is a great example because it gives the audience a cliffhanger. “Something was wrong…” What was wrong? Why was his tax form rejected? Why did the IRS think he was dead? The audience is asking these questions because you set them up for it, and now they will stick around for the payoff.

The war in Eastern Ukraine raged on today, taking a toll on fighters and civilians alike. The Russian-backed separatists are pounding government-held towns in and around Donetsk and civilians are trying to escape. The separatists have been pressing their own offensive for nearly two weeks now, gaining ground against Ukrainian government troops. NPR’s Corey Flintoff met some of the refugees today.

Sometimes you don’t need to give a cliffhanger or a tease. Sometimes you just need to let people know what’s coming up next. Flintoff met some of the refugees, and now as a listener I am expecting to hear from those refugees in the story. We’ve established the background of the story with the intro, and now we’re going to give the audience something more. Sometimes being straightforward can be just as effective.

If you’re struggling with your words, go to the people who use words better than anyone. During my struggles, I would listen to NPR while driving from story to story. The more I listened, the more I understood what intros worked best to keep people’s attention – after all, if an intro isn’t good, it’s very tempting to switch away from public radio to something else. But I didn’t switch away, I kept listening, because the way they used their words piqued my curiosity and kept me tuned to the story.

Treat your TV stories the same way. Make the audience a promise that if they keep their eyes on the screen, they’ll see something important.

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