How I told the story
Chris Moran, Director of Communications
The Innovation Academy, as well as my career at UF, launched in January. As the new kid on the block I was assigned to write about the new academic program on campus. The two of us took our first excited steps as part of Gator Nation over the course of several weeks that preceded publication of the story in the UF home page’s spotlight in late February.
Of course, this wasn’t my first writing assignment. I’d been a newspaper reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the things I learned writing about political shenanigans, wildfires, hot-button issues and everyday people I continue to apply in telling the UF story.
Here are some of those things as they applied to “When innovation itself is the innovation.”
Find an emotional moment: People connect through emotions. That’s true in your friendships or in your decisions regarding what you read or what you watch. In the case of college-bound high school seniors, there’s a universal emotional moment – learning whether you’re admitted to your university of choice. What I hope kept this from being a cliché was that Natalia Tamayo shed tears of disappointment when she got in.
Use detail to bring readers into the scene: I chose to set the scene with a few select details. I used the time because it was after midnight, suggesting a time of solitude, when you’re alone with your fate. The mention that she carried an iPhone I included because it was the portal through which she learned the news. I chose to use the brand name because I think there are a lot of emotions connected to the iPhone because of the vast experience and associations so many people have with theirs. The Toyota Highlander gets a plug because many readers are connected to their cars in ways that go beyond what they use to get from A to B. And it envelopes and isolates Natalia, again suggesting that solitary moment when she absorbs such a shock. You have to ask a lot of questions to get to this level of detail. Sometimes those questions can sound obtuse or even brutal (When I was a newspaper reporter, we called the most sensitive inquiries the what-color-were-the-dead-baby’s-eyes questions, tough to ask but likely to yield info that really personalizes a story). Because you don’t know what you’re going to use, you have to overask. That’s a segue into the next tip:
Collect more than you’ll need: Your stories aren’t notebook dumps. Writing is like sculpture. You cut away what’s not essential until you have only what contributes to the statue or the story. For my best newspaper stories, I threw away reams of notes that I never used. But I didn’t know exactly what quote, detail or data point would be that key puzzle piece until I was well into the writing. You can discard what you know but you can’t retrieve what you don’t know. I probably interviewed 10 students to get the three I used in the story. And I wouldn’t have used anyone other than Natalia, except that I think the other two students offered quotes that said something better than I could have paraphrased it.
Trace a transformative arc: A story is driven by change, by discernible growth. In the case of Natalia, I dropped her back into the story later as an ambassador for the program. Not only did I introduce pertinent information about the program in a student’s words, but through her evident embrace of the Innovation Academy was able to show Natalia’s transformation from skeptic to champion.
State a problem. Then solve it: I’m not in love with the nut graph of the Innovation Academy story (“The University of Florida’s offer of delayed entry….”). It sometimes sounds too much like administrator-speak (“plant capacity decision,” “underutilized”). But it sets out the problem that UF loses 2,000 students every December, and that costs money and lost opportunities. If you’ve done it right, readers are interested in the solution, and they’ll go deeper into the story. That’s when they’ll get the proposed solution of the January-through-August calendar.
End by signaling a beginning: Because the Innovation Academy is in its infancy, we don’t know how things will turn out. So I decided to end on its potential. That meant finding a way to look ahead. When student David Nassau spoke lines with “change” and “future” in them, I knew I had my kicker. A story with an arbitrary end leaves readers scratching their heads. Ending through looking ahead to a new beginning closes the circle on the story, giving it a sense of completion. It also represents a logical, easily grasped chronological progression from past to present to future.
The story of UF’s Innovation Academy was spotlighted on the UF home page, and picked up in statewide and regional media. University Relations Creative Services is currently building a cross-media visual brand and messaging campaign for the Innovation Academy.
Chronicle of Higher Education http://chronicle.com/article/SpringSummer-Are-the-New/137359/
Agriculture is America http://agisamerica.org/cultivating-a-crop-of-innovators
Janine Sikes, Assistant Vice President, Media Relations and Public Affairs
Chris Moran, Director of Communications
Steve Orlando, Senior Director, UF News Bureau
Ron Wayne, News Desk Editor
Jim Harrison, Director of Creative Services
Ray Carson, Photography Section Head
Eric Zamora, Digital Media Specialist
Bruce Floyd, Social Media Specialist
Office of Admissions
Jeff Citty Ed. D., Director, Innovation Academy
- Find an emotional moment.
- Use detail to bring readers into the scene.
- Collect more than you’ll need.
- Trace a transformative arc.
- State a problem. Then solve it.
- End by signaling a beginning.