Squirrels, Steve Hartman, & storytelling through details

Every Saturday morning, when the weather is nice, I take a walk around the block.

Of course, living in the heart of Atlanta, my block is a city street that features high-rises, an office complex, and a hotel. But it leads to a massive park, and it is a great gateway to a number of enjoyable routes.

I have walked down that street numerous times … and then, on a recent Saturday morning, I saw it differently.

Before that day, I barely acknowledged the yards and grass in front of the buildings; I noticed the green swaths in front of me, naturally, but I never gave them a second thought. I simply kept listening to whatever was playing in my earbuds, enjoying the wide view of the street, and moving along.

But on this day, I decided I would pay attention. I would look around for details, wherever I could find them, that I would not otherwise notice.

And when I looked at the yards, I saw squirrels.

Lots of them.

Chowing down on grass blades and acorns.

The following Saturday, I looked again — and, once more, I saw the squirrels.

Now I see them whenever I walk by. And I always think to myself, “How did I never notice them before?” These are living creatures, existing en masse right in front of me, yet they never registered in my mind or my eyes.

These are the kinds of details that pass by journalists and storytellers every day.

A common complaint about TV news in particular is a seeming inability to be relatable. Stories fly by as mere wallpaper to a viewer’s day, mainly because the viewer cannot seriously connect with those stories’ subjects. The people in these pieces become cartoons — stereotypes or archetypes with little substance.

The best storytellers find a way — even amidst the tiny sliver of time allotted for a package — to let the details provide the depth.

I was reminded of this over the weekend. I had been researching the great Steve Hartman of CBS News and stumbled upon some archived classics from his series, “Everybody Has a Story”. This was a long-running segment where Hartman would choose a state, town, and person at random — from all across America — and turn that person’s life into a meaningful, captivating three minutes of television.

Those stories were always relatable, and they thrived on details.

Take a look at this one. In a broad sense, it is a story about a soft-spoken veteran who fought in the Gulf War and helped to liberate Kuwait.

But Hartman does not arrive at that theme until nearly halfway through the piece. Along the way, Hartman pokes fun at the “chatty cowboy” and his camera-shy wife, takes joy in their energetic son, and retells the story of how he proposed to his future wife by mail.

By story’s end, Hartman has meshed the major theme with the more colorful details into a beautiful, multi-layered portrait.

Could the story have worked without including the marriage proposal? The energetic son? Sure. But it would not have been anywhere near as enjoyable or moving.

Print reporters often seem to be better about noticing more meticulous details, maybe because they do not have to worry about capturing them on camera. But the best TV journalists, from feature reporters like Hartman to those who cover harder topics, succeed at storytelling on both a macro and micro level. They hit on grand schemes while dropping all sorts of impactful nuggets throughout.

To put it another way, on the long walks of their stories, they make sure to remember the squirrels.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Leave a comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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