A story is powerful when it sticks with you (and society) long enough to make a difference. Those of us who pitch ideas to reporters for clients and causes are always on the lookout for these power stories we can use to start a conversation, grow awareness, and even move legislation.
As we all start a new year of storytelling, what is it exactly that makes a story stick for reporters, readers, and policymakers? My colleague Leslie Kerns hinted at the answer in her awesome storytelling whitepaper last year. She said a story can touch readers and make waves when it has the 5-factor: be personal, relatable, surprising, relevant and timely. (Sidenote while it’s on my mind — 5-Factor would make an awesome name for Simon Cowell’s next boy band.)
I asked around the M+R media wing for the 5-factor stories that my co-workers couldn’t forget from 2013 to show you what these stories and elements look like in action. Here are lessons from the best of the best:
1. Gun control gets personal
The New York Times opened eyes, including mine, with its Bearing Arms feature that shined a light on the growing problem of accessibility to firearms in America. To drive home the statistics about accidental gun deaths of children, the Times told the tragically personal stories of children across the country who mistakenly got their hands on a gun. One of the stories that really stuck with me was about a two-year-old boy named Tristan from Hinesville, GA, who found his father’s handgun under a pillow.
2. A teen’s surprising struggle reaches Maine’s highest court
In 2007, Nicole Maines was banned from using the girls’ restroom at her elementary school. Nicole, now a transgender teen, was forced to use the school’s staff bathroom instead. Her parents sued the school district and this article in the Bangor Daily News followed the trial as it reached the Maine Supreme Judicial Court thanks to the legal team of our friends at GLAD. Nicole’s surprising story got the attention of parents, who shared Nicole’s father’s feelings when he said, “We want our children to have the same opportunities other students have to be accepted.” Nicole’s story is paving the way for new protections and understanding in New England.
For a fuller picture of Nicole and her family, I highly recommend this December Boston Globe piece by Bella English (one of my favorite feature writers) as another model of powerful storytelling for a cause.
3. NPR helps listeners relate to workers 12,000 miles away
For most U.S. listeners, there’s nothing immediately relatable about a story that begins, “Shumi and Minu work six days a week operating sewing machines at Deluxe Fashions Ltd. in Chittagong, Bangladesh. They each make about $80 a month.” But what I found so brilliant about this story and NPR’s Planet Money T-Shirt Project is that it connected the story of these two young women half the world away to the simple inexpensive t-shirts you and I wear every day. It’s not always easy to find the relatable thread in a story that brings it home, but when you do, it packs an extra punch for reporters and readers that’ll make them take notice — and even shift their perspective.
4. The Times right on time for marriage equality
On June 26, 2013, love-loving people across the country raised a glass / shed a tear / filled the streets / celebrated with a giant (and delicious) cupcake like this one in my office, when SCOTUS struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The fight before the win was long and frustrating. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the powerful stories of same-sex couples that humanized the law and poked at its flaws. We remember this timely story in the New York Times before the ruling during tax season about a married couple from Maryland who was dealing with tax and insurance inequalities because the federal government did not recognize their marriage. Sure, using the calendar to tell timely stories when they’re most relevant to your audience is kind of obvious — but it can get a reporter’s attention.
5. Relevant to 1-in-3 women
This incredibly eye-opening piece in New York Magazine told not just one, but 26 stories of women’s abortion experiences. This collection of stories was highly relevant to one of the year’s biggest news cycles and expanded the national conversation sparked by Wendy Davis’ stand in Texas. As I read each and every one, I was filled with mixed emotions of anger, shock and sadness, and at the same time, I was simply glad these stories were being shared. As the stigma and threats to women’s health and rights persist, I know stories like these will help push forward the important perspectives of the one-in-three women under 45 in America who has an abortion.
Want to learn more about what makes a story powerful for your cause? Check out the rest of Leslie’s whitepaper: “Storytelling and the Power of Making Headlines.” Here’s to a story-filled change-making new year!