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Frame the story: Why finding the right story angle is like finding the right composition for a photo

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Bright people with great ideas often struggle to tell a good story in writing. Many experts are good at talking, but when they write for channels like LinkedIn, stories can end up sounding like an excerpt from a dissertation or a contribution to an academic journal.

It’s kind of a side-effect of being brainy, right?

Subject-matter experts have a tendency to use language that is dense and, often, because they were trained in academic writing, experts bury the juicy material at the bottom. Stories are set up with introductions, hypotheses, evidence and conclusions instead of the journalistic approach, which would be to put the most salient pieces first.

In my view, subject-matter experts need to find the right story angle in the way a journalist would do it by evaluating what’s new, different and relevant to bring the conversation forward. They need to educate the reader but abandon academic structures and leave out the “teachy” voice.

How to find good story angles

Finding the right story angle is like finding the right composition to a photo. It is the frame through which you will tell your written story. And it’s the frame in which you will zoom in with your story to address specifics.

Before you point your camera and look for the right composition, you’ve got to do some background work. You need to map out your ideas in a structured way, such as with a mindmap, and see their relationships. It’s part of a process I call story framing and something I teach in my workshops.

Once you have a mindmap about particular problems faced by your core audience, then you look for ideas that are adjacent to your core ideas.

I’ll give you an example.

One of my core ideas is that to write good articles in the thought-leadership style, subject-matter experts need to find the right story angle. Sounds familiar, right?

If someone who knows a lot about digital transformations writes a story that says, “Ladies and gentlemen, digital is here to stay, and your company needs a digital transformation,” then that expert won’t be taken seriously. That’s no longer a story. We already know that, even though so many companies desperately need help with their digital transformation.

When I say look for ideas that are “adjacent” to your core idea, I mean look for stories that communicate your core message but in a new and fresh way. In my case, I cannot continue to write one story over and over again that says “to write good articles, subject-matter experts need to find the right story angle.” I’ve told you that already.

The key word here is adjacent. With adjacent ideas, you can draw the reader in and give your idea set a new spin but still have the same message.

For example, here are some other headlines I could use to talk about the importance of journalistic story angles for subject-matter experts who want to present themselves as leading thinkers in their space:

– With this story-framing system, you’ll never write another boring story again

– Dear expert: Please stop regurgitating facts. Tell me a story!

– The difference between academic and journalistic writing

[By the way, if you see stories from me travelling under these headlines in the days to come, well, I warned you!]

In the case of this story, I’m telling you the same message as I would have in the above stories, but I’m doing it in a new way because I am explaining the metaphor of photography for story framing.

My recommendation: Before you write a story with an angle that closely resembles the last one you wrote, take fresh stock of your business landscape and the niche problem you are addressing in that landscape. Then imagine holding up a camera or an empty, wooden picture frame and deciding what goes into the composition and what stays out. Sometimes the narrower your composition, the more interesting.

Framing stories well is one of the most difficult steps in getting a good piece, and the place where there’s amazingly little imparted knowledge on how to do it.

Story framing is taught to budding journalists on a daily basis, but it seems to be a learning-by-doing exercise. The editor says, “Go out and get me a profile of the dog catcher in town.” And off goes the reporter. When they return to the newsroom, they’ve either got the story or they don’t. The editor will let him know.

If the reporter did not succeed in reading the editor’s mind or framing the story up effectively on his own, back he goes. It’s almost as if teaching the art of story framing is something editors attempt to do through telepathy.

I realize that doesn’t make it easier for subject-matter experts who want to take a cue from journalists, but it’s what I experienced in my early days in journalism. Only after I deconstructed my own process did I figure out that there’s actually a methodology to it.

And that methodology starts with the first steps of surveying your business landscape, narrowing in on the problem you’re addressing and then looking for adjacent story ideas.

-Rhea Wessel is the Founder and Head of the Institute for Thought Leadership

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