What’s this story about?

The importance of developing a focus statement in audio storytelling (and not losing your listeners)

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“Unless you have that central throughline for your story, sometimes you end up with a mess.”
“Unless you have that central throughline for your story, sometimes you end up with a mess.”

I still struggle with writing focus statements, and I am more than two decades into being a journalist. That’s because nailing a focus statement is often the hardest part of storytelling. Once you’ve got it figured out, however, it definitely makes life a lot easier.

What is a focus statement, you ask?

It’s the audio equivalent of similar concepts such as a nut graf in print pieces or a logline for a film; some people may even think of it as an elevator pitch. A focus statement tells the thesis of your story within a sentence or two.

Some of the strongest audio stories often follow a single person’s narrative arc. A focus statement helps you zero in on it. Someone is doing something because of something. “The someone” gives you the central character for your story. The “doing something” becomes the action that drives your central character. “Because of something” will help you understand the motivation. Some people like to add a “but” clause to add tension in that narrative.

It starts at the pitch

In a pitch meeting, a focus statement can help you get a story greenlit. Once it is approved, it can help you develop the contours of your story. After you have gathered all your audio elements, coming back to the focus statement can help you craft it.

People do care

No matter the medium — print, audio, film — it’s helpful to craft a focus statement before you start doing the heavy-lifting work. Yes, it’s a helpful tool for your audience. It’s the “why should I care” part of your story that will make them either keep listening (or reading or watching). But as a producer or reporter, it’s a constant reminder of what you are setting out to do.

Taking Notes. Work illustrations by Storyset: https://storyset.com/work.

Finding your way

Once you have done your research, and possibly some pre-interviews, you often end up with a jumble of thoughts. If you are like me, you have pages and pages of handwritten notes that you now need to somehow fashion into a coherent narrative.

Whether you are a super-organized producer, who has chapters and scenes planned out well in advance, or you are more of the organic kind, who lives for all those epiphanies that come along the way — a focus statement can be an indispensable tool.

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of a story. I do it regularly, even today. I will meet fascinating people doing extraordinary — or even mundane — things. They are either great talkers or have great stories to tell. Or maybe there is a brilliant scene to be captured, and you go down rabbit holes of how best to capture and sound design it. All of those are great, and very important aspects of the storytelling. But unless you have that central throughline for your story, sometimes you end up with a mess.

It’s that feeling after watching a movie that leaves you thinking, “What just happened?” For example, I’m still confused by The Fountain (2006), starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. I understand that the movie is about a scientist trying to find a cure for his wife dying of cancer, and looks into questions of mortality. But you have to wonder whether director Darren Aronofsky looked at this logline every now and then, and said. “How does this scene advance the premise of my story?”

Audio Focus

Audio can pose additional challenges. Unlike film (where you have visual cues) or print (where you can turn back to re-read a passage), audio is often more ephemeral. (Yes, listeners can technically rewind a podcast episode, but they shouldn’t need to.) Since audio stories are a theatre of the mind, where the listener is providing the mental images, it’s even more important to keep your focus statement in mind as you plot your chapters and scenes around your central character.

Your story can have other characters, of course, who add to the central character’s narrative arc. Your central character can be doing many different things other than the main action to create a more rounded personality. When you’re in the planning stages of your story, your focus statement can help figure out who those other characters are or what other scenes may be.

When you’ve gathered all your tape, and need to figure out what to keep and what to lose, the focus statement will help you make those judicious edits. If you’re struggling with writing a script around your clips, going back to your thesis can sometimes provide moments of clarity.

How do you write a focus statement?

Some people are just born with that clarity of thought. I am not one of them. At different times, different approaches help. Sometimes I make thought bubbles to try and boil down the essence of the story. Other times I end up writing a pitch several times, making the premise simpler and simpler with each pass. These days, however, I spend my time looking for a central character around whom I can build a story.

Say it’s a story about the housing crisis. First, I try to pick a particular subset of that story. Maybe my story will look at illegal rooming houses. Then I need to find a central character. It could be someone living in a rooming house. It could be someone who is trying to raise alarm bells about unsafe rooming houses. Or it could be someone trying to legislate rooming houses. Once I have that character and actions (someone doing something) figured out, I look for the motivation and dramatic tension (because of something—but…).

Here’s a potential focus statement: A student is living in an illegal rooming house because she’s an international student, but she’s about to be evicted because she lost her job.

Who is the student? How did she end up an international student living in an illegal rooming house? Why did she lose her job? When will she likely get evicted? What’s going to happen next? I now have a roadmap to figure out how to tell this story.

Having said all that, I will also say this. Focus statements are not written in stone. Sometimes your story will change as you go about researching it or maybe even recording it. As a storyteller, you want to be able to discover new things or adapt to changing circumstances.

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