There’s a Storytelling trick broadcast journalists use when reporting live on a story. You probably never noticed it. In all honesty, neither have most journalists themselves. They just do it.

At the beginning of my journalism career, I was an assistant producer at a fast-paced radio news programme. One time, the presenter stormed out of the studio after a live Q&A with one of our freelance reporters. “Never use that one again,” he said to my surprise. The reporter was good. He knew his stuff, he spoke eloquently, and never reported a second more than requested. But he had made the one mistake my editor couldn’t stand: he often started his answers with the words ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘correct.’

You are probably confused and that’s ok.

See, journalists are discouraged from asking closed-ended questions. These are questions that lead to answers such as the aforementioned single words. So we ask open-ended questions to stimulate deeper, and more meaningful replies.  Instead of asking: “Are you ok?” – which will lead to a yes or no answer – we ask “How are you feeling today?”

But of course, sometimes journalists do need to ask closed-ended questions. A well trained good reporter will know better than to say ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or ‘correct.’  So here’s the trick: journalists answer by repeating the question in the affirmative form stressing the action that can lead to yes or no answers.

Studio: “Has citizen X arrived at the court already?”

Reporter: “Citizen X has not yet arrived at the court… [rest of the story]”

The words “has not yet” are stressed to indicate the answer to the question posed.

But why do journalists do this?

The simple answer is: to save time and money.

Back to my journalism beginnings. After we had a live Q&A with a journalist, we always packed their answers into a report of its own. Unless new developments would come in, we would use that one minute from the live conversation in our next news bulletins. This would allow the reporters to actually have time to do their work without worrying about the next live block. Once there was something new or the story had changed – and it always does – the reporter would come back live with the latest updates.

In today’s world obsessed with live reporting, this economics no longer plays much of a role in the broadcasting landscape. But it has left a heritage behind. It has forced journalists to tell a story in every answer they give. Something that has a beginning, middle and end like any other report would – only it lasts 30seconds.

Stories come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes little is just enough. Addressing your audience for half an hour doesn’t mean they will get more from you than if you had spent 10 minutes with them.

Refine your message. Focus on the journey. Share the heart of your story. And very importantly, be original: don’t start your answers with yes, no or correct. You never who might storm out of the room enraged with your lack of storytelling capability.

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When the US troops entered his native town of Bagdad in 2003, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad ditched his architectural sketches, grabbed a camera a friend had given him and stepped outside to document what was going on. A decade later, he’s become one of the most renowned war photojournalists of his generation. 

Broadcast on Deutsche Welle (February 2013)