Al Tompkin’s book “Aim for the Heart” is undoubtedly one of the most useful guide books I have read about broadcast writing skills. The book includes clear description and specific examples to help us understand how to write effectively in broadcast news and why we have to do like that. Tompkins’ examples cover the professional experiences and reflections of his peers, his colleagues and himself, as well as excerpts from broadcast scripts that show the details and script-conceiving process behind them, which are direct and helpful. Moreover, his writing style is simple and easy to understand, just like what broadcast news script does. And his language is also humorous, humanized and sometimes even touching, which makes me feel like talking to a friend who wishes me to succeed. I also prefer the way he concludes at the end of each session or chapter, which makes the readers clearly aware of focus and important principles in that session or chapter and helpful for people to memorize.
The book includes eleven chapters, of which I suppose that the first seven chapters mainly focus on the skills or principles for writing and shooting in TV news and are also the most helpful parts I personally benefit from. The last three chapters discuss the ethics, power of enterprise reporting and how to survive and thrive in today’s TV newsroom and so on, which are also absolutely quite helpful and enlightening. Here, I would like to focus on my reflections on some of my most favorite chapters and principles I have learnt from them and discuss how I would use them in my reporting practice.
From the first chapter, I have learnt two things: how to find focus of story and how to use soundbites. Tompkins says “Find a tight focus that connects with the viewer’s head and heart,”(Tompkin, Al.,pp.12) for me, this means every time we compose a script, we need to select those touching and interesting information from the whole story and focus on them. The “touching” and “interesting” feelings are from the readers’ side, not from the reporters’ side, that is, we have to stand in the audiences’ side to think what mostly relate to them, what they mostly want to know, and what they might be most interested in. When Tompkins says “selecting, not compressing,”(pp.4), it causes my resonances. Because almost every time I compose my script, I would find there are too many details and information that I think are important and wish to insert into my story, but the script limitation would never allow me to do that. For a long time, my solution was to compress the content, which usually resulted in an unclear and messy script. Then, I gradually realize that it may not be necessary to include every detail in the stories. If standing in the audiences’ side, no one could accept so many details in two minutes, and too much information also would confuse viewers’ mind and make them unclear about the core that the story conveys. Thus, the keys are to select and to focus, selecting information that are the most interesting and most concerned by public, focusing on the parts that connect viewer’s head and heart. And if “Viewers remember what they feel longer than what they know,”(pp.12) then it is equally important to catch the most touching moment and visualize it by using proper shots and soundbites. Tompkins suggests using soundbites for the subject part of story and copy for the objective part, which makes me realize the clear role-assignments between soundbites and copy, and they should not repeat each other. In practice, I should use the character’s soundbites to show their thoughts and emotion, while use my copy to illustrate the information which are not able to be conveyed from the videos.
Chapter two discusses the frame of the story, which tells us how to capture viewers’ heart from beginning to the end. First, “Surprises.” Tompkins explains that surprises are like gold coins, which appear at the beginnings to make viewers feel something and catch their eyes at first glance, then would not stop there. By using hourglass frame and trickily distributing the “gold coins” to develop the story, you would keep viewers’ interest, and the last gold coin should be in the close, which should be a tight summary and close the story circle. The chapter compares the different effects between Inverted pyramids and hourglass frames, which is quite obvious that the former one is boring than the latter one. Inverted pyramids may be quite applicable to newspaper, but not quite for TVs. Because the character of TV is visualization and it conveys information in a more vivid and direct way, so we have to write for eyes and ears. In hourglass frame, putting “what happened” first instead of news first could attract people’s interest and keep them follow the story, which I think is a way that movies usually do. So, in my future reporting, I would firstly select pieces of important information in my story, and then gradually distribute them during my stories. I would put the information or the videos that could mostly arise viewers’ curiosity or interest as my first series of shots, then distribute “gold coins” until the story ends. If I have strong emotional shots, I would not hesitate to use it as a close, because “what you say and show at the end of the story is often what lingers in the viewer’s heart.”(pp.33
Chapter three focuses on skills of employing characters to tell stories, the importance of central compelling character (CCC). And Tompkins says “the best characters are those who are closest to story/issue.”(pp.42). I remember once I have done a video story about “Treekeepers classes.} The TreeKeepers classes itself contained no much information, after I took videos of the classes, I was looking for my interviewees. This time I met an elegant old lady who attracted me by her attentive attitude of listening to the classes and taking notes. Then, I talked to her not as a journalist but as a friend or a person who wish to know her, because I was curious what makes her so attentive to the classes. Then, I got my answer, knowing it is one of her maples’ death that made her come to this class and became tree volunteers, knowing that she owns a large farm and backyard and build tens of trees, and knowing her passion for trees and nature. Then, I went to her home and saw her beautiful backyard, and my curiosity and frank feelings make this lady told me more about herself, and I know she is a skin cancer patient, but she is brave and optimistic, and she is also very kind, kind to trees, kind to small animals and kind to people.
In the TreeKeepers classes, there was one student telling me that the lady always provides free ride for her during weekend to somewhere she needs to go. After knowing these stories, I feel moved by this lady, and understand her passion for life and nature from a deeper level. At this time, I suddenly understand the “interesting question”–that is, telling stories from human angle, or humanizing stories, recording the moving moment associated with the story. I think that is what Tompkins says “put a face on the story”(pp.36) and “use the little picture to demonstrate the big picture.”(pp.40) Central compelling characters would bring our stories more close to viewers’ eyes and heart, and also would make them better understand and remember the stories. So, “digging stories behind people” is the lesson I have leant from both “Treekeepers” story and Tompkins’ book.
And the “Treekeepers” story also makes me deeply reflect how to do good interviews, and the chapter six of Tompkins’ book is about the art of interview. Being a good listener is really an important skill, and the characters of good listeners listed in the book make me realize that if you listen to interviewees just like listening to your best friends rather than listening to a “job target,” then many problems could be avoided. Besides, the book also mentions many questioning skills, such as “focusing on one issue at a time,”(pp. 64), “asking open-ended questions,”(pp.61), “be naive,”(pp.64) and “be touch. Be human. Be honest,” (pp.66) which I think are very helpful and worth reviewing them frequently in future reporting.
For me, another impressive point mentioned in this chapter is the power of “silence,” which I have never noticed before and thus have never used into my videos or scripts. In daily life, I am a talkative person and usually the controlling part of a conversation, thus seldom I realize that giving listeners time to digest information could make them more attentive on the conversation. Silence is an interview skill and is also a story-telling skill in broadcast. As Tompkins says “silence builds suspense, creates space and pulls the viewer deeper into the scene,” (pp.81) I would use silence videos when it could better authenticate the pictures.
As a journalist, I would always remind myself of keeping informed by various ways (internet, newspaper, magazines etc.) and be sensitive to news and stories. When working in a newsroom, we need to learn how to manage stress and have a good time management (for example, keep a work memo in hand to make everything ordered and scheduled) to avoid rashing to the last minute to finish work and overworking. Besides, we also need to avoid office gossip and politics and also learn to ignore those things.
The last part of this book touched me a lot, which tells us “the meaning of life.” Working for making money and getting stuffs is not wrong and in fact quite natural for humanbeings, but the meaning of life does not only lie in “surviving” but lies more in “living.” Living includes contribution to society and the realization of self-value. For me, only a career that could help me realize my self-value and meanwhile could benefit people around me or further a society is my ideal career.