Full text of journalist Palki Sharma Upadhyay’s talk: The Art of Storytelling in the News World at TEDxMICA conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Palki Sharma Upadhyay – Editor with World Is One News (WION)
Hello, everyone, and thank you, TEDxMICA for having me here.
The subject of today’s talk is Mind The Gap. And the first thought that comes to mind is the metro train and its constant advice to mind the gap that we don’t really dwell on once we are off the train.
But mind the gap can and does have a more profound meaning. Today I’m telling you about the gaps that I grapple with and how I try to fill them in my own way.
This is my story, and before I begin it, I have a question for you: What is your story? When you grow up and talk to your grandchildren, what’s the story that you want to tell?
Will your story be more exciting than your CV? Or will you say you woke up, went to work, completed projects, met deadlines and targets, got promoted every other year, basically went through the motions of life, did not drop too many balls, but did not disrupt very much either?
Think of the story you want to tell a few decades from now and then start writing it today. Because our world today is essentially a grand storytelling competition, we’re all striving to present our own national, cultural and personal stories in the most persuasive manner.
I remember reading somewhere that in the olden times we said, if you want to poison a people, you must poison their wells.
But in this day and age, as novelist Ben Okri said, if you want to poison a people, poison their stories. Because stories sway people. They change the course of policies, politics, and indeed, the world.
I’ll give you an example. During the Second World War, America had a list of Japanese cities it wanted to bomb with the atom bomb. The city of Kyoto was on that list, but it was removed by the Secretary of War — American Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Instead, they put Nagasaki.
Why do you think he removed Kyoto? Because he’d gone there for his honeymoon, he’d seen Kyoto’s beauty and culture, and he did not want to see it destroyed.
You could say Kyoto’s story saved it. And that’s why it’s very important to be in control of your story, to actively shape it. And this is the first gap that I encountered in my career as a journalist.
We are a country of 1.4 billion people. We have hundreds of channels, a very aware and politically engaged audience, but we did not have a single news channel or newspaper that told our story to the world.
The New York Times write something about India, and it immediately becomes a Twitter trend. You may trash it, but you’re still consuming it and reacting to it.
The Economist weighs in on an Indian election, and it becomes part of the political debate. We are letting the foreign press shape our self image.
Which Indian newspaper triggers a similar response in the West? If there is disturbance in Kashmir, the world learns about it from the BBC or Al Jazeera. They use their own lens, their own editorial biases. And for the moment, that’s besides the point.
The argument I’m making is very simple. Why can’t India, the land of epics like the Mahabharata Ramayana, and tell its own story in its own words?
This gap was filled by WION, India’s first International news channel, of which I’m a part.
Gap number two: you have a story, but why should anyone listen to it?
There are multiple channels with heavyweight anchors, all discussing the same story with the same guests, the same graphics, the same visuals and the same decibel levels.
We like that song. I’m just a copy of a copy of a copy. We all kept looking at each other and perhaps forgot the viewer. We wanted to do what someone else was doing bigger, bolder, brighter, but not necessarily better.
If you have 10 windows, I’ll have 12. But we forgot to ask what the viewer wants.
Do you want to see so many talking heads? Do you want an endless and frankly useless shouting match every day? And if you want to see a good stunt, will you watch Avengers or anchors.
In this clutter, how do you become different? What sets you apart is the way you tell the story. And that brings me to the concept of the katha and the kathakar.
Now, if you have a child or a niece or a nephew, you would have noticed something. They all asked for the same story to be told over and over again. We did the same with our grandparents. We know the story from beginning to end, but we want to hear it again.
Why do we like the same story retold?
Because what is pulling us is not the katha or the story, but the kathakar or the storyteller. The manner in which that story is told, that’s what holds the magic.
How do we create this magic in news?
Well, I was introduced to the life-changing concept called Orbit Shift. It’s a very simple concept.
You all know what a gravitational pull is. In the simplest of terms, it keeps you grounded, but it also prevents you from flying. As professionals and individuals, we are saddled with many levels of gravity.
Number one is Personal gravity. This is what I can do. This is what I cannot do. There is self-doubt and there are limitations that your mind sets for you.
Number two is Company gravity. This cannot be done in our organization because you will not get cross functional support, or [yahaan aisa hi kaam hota hain] because we’ve all heard this and accepted it.
Number three is Industry gravity. How can you do a 09:00 p.m. show without guests? It doesn’t happen anywhere.
How can you not take a break in the middle of the show? This is the industry practice, and soon it becomes industry gravity, and we do not challenge it.
Number four is a social or cultural gravity. Prejudice, preconceptions in India. We flaunt the jugar. We do not want a long term plan because we believe in figuring something out at the last moment with jugar.
Now think of the number of times when you’ve had to struggle with this cumulative gravity. It is the biggest hurdle in the path of innovation. It kills ideas and you rationalize all of it in the name of practicality. But sometimes you have to be impractical.
You have to throw yourself at the deep end and burn the bridge to safety to come up with something that is really transformative. And that is what is called an orbit shift.
And that’s what we did with Gravitas, or we hope we did. We created a prime time news and view show minus multiple guests. We went back to the drawing board to focus on tight scripts on relevant subjects, research, analysis, fact checks, basic things really, which should ideally be SOP for all news. But they were not.
Gap number three, or should I say challenge: Who watches TV news anymore?
There is an explosion of content around you. Television is already the second screen. The mobile phone has taken the top spot.
So my news story is competing with the WhatsApp forward, an Instagram reel, a YouTube spoof and what have you. One editor famously said my competition is not other news shows. My competition at 09:00 is Big Boss or Kapil Sharma.
Another one asked for Fizz and said that do not do water journalism, colorless, flavorless, odorless. This is the age of Coke. Find your flavor well.
What should that flavor be?
Inform, without making a fuss. Give your viewer value for time. That’s the flavor we decided on.
Use the old playbook of Aristotle to make your story compelling. He gave us five elements of a good story, some 2000 years ago.
And these are the five elements: ethos, authority and character, which comes with credibility and commitment to the issues that you raised in your broadcast.
Do people trust you? Do they see you as an authority on a subject? If they do, they will listen to you.
Number two: logos. That is reason, which involves making a logical appeal, using data and facts to make a rational argument because you cannot make an assertion with no basis in fact or logic.
Number three is pathos, emotion. And this is different from drama. It’s a genuine connect with the audience through honest and effective communication.
Number four is metaphor, which helps the viewer process complex issues. When you give them relatable parallels, it makes you more memorable.
And number five is brevity, using short sentences, punchy lines, informative tag outs.
And finally, the gap that is common to all human stories. The gap that I continue to try to fill. The question of purpose.
What is the purpose of what you’re doing? What do you really want to do and to what end? It’s like the dreaded interview question where do you see yourself five years from now? Where do you see yourself at the end of this journey you’ve embarked on?
Honestly, I’ve not been able to answer this question, so I gave myself another one.
Which is the one story that changed your life? Or, if that sounds too dramatic, the one story that profoundly impacted you or just stayed with you?
For me, that story was the story of the ugly duckling. It’s a nurse retail, you may remember it; a duck lay some eggs, they hatch. All ducklings look similar, except one. He’s bigger, awkward, doesn’t have webbed feet.
He feels sad about not fitting in until he sees a flock of swans and realizes he was never even a duck in the first place. He was a swan bracketed with ducks by mistake. He realizes he’s beautiful and not ugly and he flies away.
And I find the story very powerful because it is simple and relatable. It talks to me. I think at some point in our lives, we’ve all been the ugly duckling under immense pressure to fit in and beating ourselves up for not being able to.
I’m sure all of you have such stories. You read them or saw them and then the penny dropped. Oh, this is what this is about. And these stories shaped us.
Where do you find them? In books, in movies and TV shows, cartoons, basically, mass media. And if mass media has such a profound impact on minds, my purpose, I believe, as a cog in the wheel of mass media, should be to find and tell such stories that inspire, that motivate, or at the very least, that trigger ideas and conversations.
So that, I would say, became my purpose. To shape ideas, to make sense of the news, to empower you, to form your own opinion because you’re intelligent. Intelligent enough to choose.
I’m going to wrap with that. All the very best. Thank you.