Photo: Mark Jespersen
What makes a good story? Two things come to mind: a topic that interests me and writing that's so good, I can’t help but read, listen, or watch all the way to the end, no matter how long it takes.
In advertising, you can write and say just about anything you want. People understand what you are hinting at, or trying to sell. And for years I enjoyed that freedom, winning awards for clever headlines that made people think, laugh, and buy all kinds of stuff.
I wasn’t completely commercial, though. And several of my pro-bono campaigns helped plant over one million trees, raised awareness of the problem of homeless and abandoned kids in Boston, and brought bucket loads of money into a large non-profit organization in Massachusetts that protects animals.
What I am trying to say is not all advertising is bad, especially when it is well written and of value to the audience. You can read what others think about this concept on Reddit, one of my favorite sites.
Twenty years ago, I decided to leave the field of consumer advertising to create a medical communications agency. Medical writing, it seemed to me (and to my first client), could benefit from writing that could take extremely complex issues and make them understandable and compelling.
It wasn’t easy at first. Following the AMA Manual of Style, I had to write content that was not only scholarly but also fairly balanced and not influenced by the amount of money spent to promote or puff up the benefits of just one drug, medical device, or procedure. I also learned that there is nothing particularly funny or clever to write about things like cancer. Digging into the research, I discovered a world of data that is often difficult to understand, even for scholars or specialists. The writing may have been balanced and presented correctly, but what, if anything, you were supposed to do or think about it all was often unclear.
I struggled with this until one day when I had a long talk with David Fanning, a world-famous investigative journalist who, at the time, happened to live across the street from me in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Fanning’s stories, presented weekly on FRONTLINE, took you down a path, letting you look at all the angles (the fair balance part), and then, at the end, you could come to your own conclusion about the complex issues being presented. The writers and filmmakers on FRONTLINE worked hard to be completely transparent. You believed their documentaries and you learned something of value.
After talking with Fanning, I never looked back. This was how I wanted to present the stories that our clients needed to tell.
You can read more about David Fanning here.
How about you? Have you read or watched a compelling story on a complex topic recently? Share a link or two below in the comments and I will share them on a future post, on another Journey.