This is another blog post from the archives of No Train, No Gain, originally posted Jan. 14, 2005.
I presented a workshop this week that illustrates some lessons I have learned about how participation can be more important than content in training.
From the first, the content was strong in my workshop on generating story ideas. It was one of the first handouts I developed. I frequently got good feedback when I gave the handout to a reporter I was coaching individually or when I discussed the techniques in the handout with individual reporters. I had examples for each of the techniques discussed in the handout, too. Some were my own stories, some were stories from reporters I have worked with through the years.
I also recognized that content wasn’t enough, that I needed to involve the audience in the workshop. But my initial efforts at stimulating participation were pretty weak and I was disappointed in my first couple attempts at this workshop.
To involve the audience, I simply asked a few people to tell about their best story idea, or how they came up with the most recent story they had done that was their idea. Whichever approach I came up with, the participation was pretty flat. Sometimes I had people telling me about their best story, but there really wasn’t anything special about the idea. The execution was what made it special, so it really belonged in another workshop. One reporter didn’t even know how he came up with the idea. Another actually ended up telling about a great story that was assigned by an editor. In almost every case, they spent too much time telling the whole group about the story itself, rather than focusing on how they got the idea.
By adjusting and stealing ideas from other trainers and from other workshops of mine that were more dynamic, I have found what I believe is the right formula for stimulating participation in this workshop.
After my introduction, I ask the participants to write down, in no more than 10 words, a summary of the stories that came from their best story ideas in several categories: investigative, feature, follow-up, explanatory, an idea that came from observation. Then I ask them to explain, again in writing in 10 words or less, how they came up with the idea.
Then I will ask them to circle the story for which the idea itself made the most difference in the quality of the final story.
This writing exercise gets the work focused immediately on the story idea itself, not explaining the whole story or what you did to get the story once you had the idea. It also focuses each participant on her own stories and where those ideas come from, rather than everyone listening to one person who may not even be getting around to the idea.
Then I divide the workshop into five groups, depending on which kind of story you circled. If one category has lots of people circling it, I’ll divide it into two or three groups. Then I give the group a few minutes to tell each other about their ideas and how they came up with them. It’s important here to make sure one talkative person doesn’t dominate any group with a long war story, so I remind them a couple times during the discussion that it’s time to move along to another person.
Finally, I have each group pick the best story idea in that group. Then we come back together as a single group and I have the person with the best idea in the whole group tell how he came up with that story idea.
Sometimes I need to follow up and identify a specific technique the reporter used and discuss how you can use this technique on other stories. This is an important step that makes the workshop useful to participants. Without the discussion of technique, the participants aren’t providing examples, they’re just boasting.
The three steps involved in participation help keep the discussion focused on story ideas. The first two steps focus each reporter on her own work and how to learn from her best stories. The second and third steps help reporters learn from each other’s best stories. By using the small-group discussions, everyone becomes involved, and the stories that aren’t helping much don’t last long and don’t waste the whole group’s time. And the whole group can learn from the best examples, which will provide variety at least in story type and probably in the technique used to come up with the idea.
I conclude with an exercise I stole from Jim Stasiowski, a writing coach with whom I collaborated on an advanced reporting workshop for the Inland Press Association a couple years ago. Jim led two or three morning workshops, the first one on story ideas, and I led the afternoon workshops. In the story idea workshop, Jim launched a contest, asking people to write down the best story ideas they could come up with from the conference venue. He had some silly prizes for the winners, who would be announced at lunch. They had to get their ideas to Jim by lunchtime.
So people spent their breaks noticing interesting things about the hotel and the surrounding neighborhood and the people they saw. Jim read the ideas at lunch and we voted on winners. Clearly he had stimulated their thinking about story ideas.
I started out thinking I could teach reporters a lot about coming up with good story ideas. But I can’t teach them as much as they can teach each other.
Resources to help with story ideas:
Providence Journal’s “Power of Words” entries on story ideas
Steve Padilla’s Twenty-One Ways to Find Story Ideas