First questions to ask when doing a story

For most of my career I thought I understood communication pretty well. I worked on staffs as a photographer who went out and captured stories.

Here is the basic process of that communication for most of my life:

I captured content, which was the message and I became the messenger using my camera to connect with the audience.

From the first time I picked up the camera in the early 1980s until about 1995 the only way the Audience saw my work was in print. So either in newspapers, magazines, brochures, posters and other printed material this is how I communicated with the audience.

Now all the other messengers I worked with would have competitions through the years and still do. We entered our work [Message] into competitions judged by other [Messengers] and then received our accolades if we won awards.

I won many different awards through the years.

A little side note is I stopped entering many competitions because the people I admired most [Messengers] were not entering those same competitions. I still had my work entered by the institutions I worked with and still won those awards.

I had it all wrong

The problem now with the industry is the jobs are disappearing from those traditional institutions like newspapers. The [Audience] has slowly been leaving. There are many reasons for this, but I believe one problem is as journalists we may have been asking the five Ws:


  • Who did that?
  • What happened?
  • Where did it take place?
  • When did it take place?
  • Why did that happen?

I not only was good at asking these questions of the subjects of the stories I also added the sixth question that a seasoned journalist always added–How did it happen?.

Now while I was working on my master’s degree in communication I happened to decide to do this at a Seminary. It was actually one of the best things I ever did. I had some of the same core classes that the M. Div. students take. Later when I met my wife she was even able to use some of my library when she did her M. Div.

My communications program was in the school of education and I had to take some basic education classes as well. So what would normally be a one year master program was two years.

Now what I learned in Seminary through preaching classes and the education classes was you really need to concentrate on the audience. The education classes really drove this home to me.

Communication experts pretty much didn’t pay as much attention to the audience except to write at a certain grade level. That was about all I ever heard about really getting to know your audience up until then.

It was in the youth education class that I learned when working with high school students you need to really understand where they are coming from. Talking to theater students using sports metaphors are about as successful as expecting a toddler to read my dissertation paper.

We learned that for education to take place the educator [Messenger] had to close the loop. They gave tests that helped the teacher as well as the student to know if the [Message] was received and understood.

Why should the audience care?

We have all been in school and asked the teacher why do I need to know this stuff. Maybe you were lucky like I have been and then had a teacher take the time to help me understand why knowing the material will help me in life.

We need to reverse the process if we want to be effective as communicators. We need to start just like a teacher does and understand our audience. Then we find the stories that are most relevant to them.

Often teachers give tests the first of the year to actually look at what skills the students are lacking that they must know before going to the next grade. Now they know what the audience needs.

NGO Example

Lets say you are working for a NGO as a communicator. You need to always first start with who is your audience and secondly why should they care?

I was helping coffee growers in Mexico communicate to their audience potential buyers of coffee in the United States. But why should someone even consider buying coffee from them versus just buying Folgers coffee for example?

I interviewed an american who had been buying the coffee and selling it in his coffee shop in California. I think he helped me answer the WHY? for the audience. Listen and see if you agree.

Where should you first start when telling a story? THE AUDIENCE

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