In my reading for Vital Speeches of the Day, I came across a good speech by Peter Steinfels, the religion columnist for The New York Times. He explains a difficulty of writing on religion: "Religious leaders are uncomfortable about acknowledging conflict among their faithful or within their teachings."
For serious media, no less than for radio or TV trash talkers, the first bridge to be built is that to readers and viewers. Like it or not, a major element of that bridge is going to be conflict. It is a truism that readers and viewers are not interested in learning that New York’s commuters made it to work again this morning—unless, that is, the commuters were struggling against a snowstorm or escaping a fire or trapped in a crime scene.
Whether we do reporting, punditry, analysis, or criticism, those of us in the media traffic in stories. And a major element of a good story, as you will learn in Creative Writing 101, is conflict. We focus on conflict not only because readers or audience crave it but also because they deserve it. The conflicts that they face or wish to avoid are important to them, precisely what they want to know.
I'm going to use that passage, especially the part I've bolded, with corporate clients who want great stories, but without the conflict.
Sorry, darlings. There are no such things.
mark ragan says
I had an editor at New York Newsday in the mid-1980’s who would bark the same instructions to his rookie reporters: “There’s not enough tension in this story! You need some more tension.”
A good story needs conflict. Someone needs to be facing or overcoming an obstacle. Whether it’s the sales manager struggling to meet 3rd quarter goals, or the HR manager who’s trying to reduce healthcare costs.
Tension creates a narrative that’s worth reading.
David Murray says
Yes, and the corporate idea of tension/conflict is, “We’re the best–now, how can we be better?”
Whereas, to get a reader’s attention, you have to lead with something closer to what I once saw in a publication for a southern utility company. I paraphrase, from memory:
“Once an employee commented at a town hall that Louisiana Power & Light’s management ‘sucked like a bucket of ticks.’ It was the last town hall the management had for some time. ….”
mark ragan says
Ha, love it!
Ron Shewchuk says
Ah, the Tyranny of the Positive. It’s what prevents so many organizations from coming to grips with their problems. Er, challenges.
Want to engage a reader and get them on your side? Let them in on your struggle. Show you are a human being, with real problems people can sympathize with. But, more often than not, leaders are too proud to acknowledge those problems or too blind to see them.
An old editor of mind came up with a nice turn of phrase: “Looking at the rose through world-tinted glasses.” That world-tinted lens ends up sitting, unused, in many corporate communicators’ desks, for most of their careers.