Breaking with tradition: how to tell a story the nontraditional way

Jul 11 2013

How can I best tell the story?

That’s one of the most important questions I’ve learned to ask while working at Reese News Lab.

I’m a word person. I like news writing, and I dabble in short stories and poetry. There’s a huge part of me that says, “You know how to write. Why don’t we stick with that?” But as an avid consumer of news, I’ll be the first to admit that other forms of journalism are often more engaging and tell the story better than a block of text.

Rather than say “this is a story for a designer,” I’ve sought out nontraditional ways to tell stories that I, as a writer with no programming or design background, can actually do. This is not to say that I don’t consult a designer before, during and after creating the story, because I do. But there are certainly ways that a traditionalist like myself can add a little pizazz to a story through graphics and multimedia.

Here are some basic, nontraditional lessons that I’ve learned this summer:

1. Use existing code: While working on a story about the learning losses that kids face in the summer months, I compiled a list of STEM summer camps in the state of North Carolina. But I wanted to make the list searchable. If your kid was a 5th grade student interested in engineering, I wanted you to be able to easily find those camps in that list. I didn’t know how to create it myself, but it turned out that we already had the code for a searchable data table. All I had to do was enter the data.

2. Don’t let Illustrator scare you: While researching a story about math textbooks done in comic form, I decided that I wouldn’t have a complete package without a comic strip to accompany the text. I didn’t know how to draw a comic with software, so I hand-drew one. After it was done I scanned and inserted it into an Adobe Illustrator document. I had no previous Illustrator experience and had honestly, always been a little intimidated by my many peers who listed it on their resumes. But the program is actually pretty user-friendly, and I was able to produce a comic strip that enhanced the story.

Superhero Sara goes from pen to Illustrator

I used Adobe Illustrator to give my drawing color.

3. You can learn video: I’ve always been impressed by videographers. I think I’ve always been a little sure that it’s a skill you’re just born with. While natural talent certainly doesn’t hurt, it is possible to shoot and edit good video even if you’ve never held a video camera before (as we all did for our Bald Head Island story). Here are some some basic video tips I picked up:

  1. Use a tripod whenever possible.
  2. Be aware of the lighting. You can fix lighting by adjusting the camera’s aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
  3. Follow the rule of thirds!
  4. Get a variety of tight, medium and wide shots. Use tight shots to transition while editing.
  5. Gather audio from your camera and a separate recording device.
  6. Be patient.

4. There are free infographic tools available: If you’re an experienced Illustrator, you can probably create an infographic all by yourself. But if you’re a novice, there are a number of free websites that can help. For a story on teacher salaries, I had numbers and information that I wanted to organize in a way that was easy to understand. I used a site called to create an infographic.

Infograpic explains new teacher pay system.

I created an infographic explaining the Douglas County School District’s new system for paying teachers.

5. Use the internet: If you can’t figure something out, use a search engine. You’ll likely find a handful of helpful how-to videos and tips. Also, use the internet if you’re looking for inspiration. Check out nontraditional methods other people have used and then add your own style to make it work for your story.

If you want other nontraditional examples, check out these that STEMwire has created:

  • An interactive quiz that lets you determine whether you’re smarter than a fifth grader.
  • A map that makes each state’s STEM report card visual.
  • An graphic showing how STEM-literate the U.S. Congress is.
  • Infographics built from scratch to tell the story of a STEM field trip, STEM at Hogwarts, STEM politicians, and superheros with STEM backgrounds.
  • A slideshow of STEM entrepreneurs’ inventions.
  • A list to tell the stories of eight organizations that work with women in STEM.
  • A Storify compilation to tell the story of MindDrive, an organization that teaches students through a social media powered car.
  • “Choose-your-own” map of math blogs.

And nontraditional storytelling isn’t just for the news, as my colleges in the Reese News Lab Summer Start-up have found. It’s also helpful in business.

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