A Conversation on How to Make Boring Things Interesting with Francis Flaherty
Not all journalism beats are created equal. Some like sports and entertainment are packed full of hometown heroes, cheering crowds and are just oozing in human interest. The marriage of Jay Z and Beyoncé or the return of Lebron James to Cleveland are dramatic events and therefore, they lend themselves to natural narrative arcs.
Other areas however like finance and economics are chalk full of complicated theories and unattractive acronyms (see GDP, TFP, and zero coupon bonds.) However the academic and the foreboding nature of these topics doesn’t mean that the writing on them has to be dry. “The key to telling these stories is that you just have to find a human angle,” journalist Francis Flaherty told me in an interview.
Flaherty worked at The New York Times for nearly two decades serving as an investment columnist and editor, and in other roles as well. He is also the author of The Elements of Story, a memoir and guide to writing compelling nonfiction.
As someone who studied law and got his start in journalism writing about business and fluctuations in the stock markers, Frank knows how to convey a complicated story. In our conversation on longform business storytelling, Flaherty’s insights were clear: while niche topics might require more work, they can be just as entertaining as sexier beats.
The key to writing successful narratives on complicated business and economic issues like a rapid rise in housing prices and the gentrification of longtime residents or the lack of grocery stores in heavily populated areas is finding characters that the reader can relate with told me.
“Every story, even the driest, has a human face,” Frank said. “Draw it well and put it on display, for to readers it is a mirror and a magnet.”
You can find this human centered storytelling technique at play in blockbuster hits like “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “The Big Short”. In most cases people, whether they are readers or viewers, do not care about the intricacies of the stock market, the process of a company becoming publicly owned, or mortgage backed securities. But what these movies did, is they explained these phenomena through compelling characters.
Whether it is a young hot shot maverick in “The Wolf of Wall Street” ruthlessly pursuing his goals or the band of misfits in “The Big Short” cooperating to bet against the American economy, these stories are character driven. And because of these strong characters, things that are normally dry topics became best sellers.
Hollywood adaptations are obviously very different from journalism in that directors take creative licenses. But the general idea remains the same: let the characters drive the story. Frank also explained how he worked the same type of human centric storytelling into his work as a business writer.
While he was working at the New York Times in the early 90’s America entered a recession. Consequently, shoppers were much less likely to buy name brand items due to the contracting economy. When Frank was commissioned to write a story on this phenomenon, instead of writing about the difficulties big iconic brands faced in the consumer market, he wrote the story through the perspective of a Mr. Saccardo — an Everyman, for whom brand name products help solidify his identity. Mr. Saccardo’s brand of choice was Cadillac.
“Mr. Saccardo didn’t say much about his Cadillac,” Frank wrote in his article, “but I suspect that when he swung onto the Meadowbrook Parkway he became in his mind’s eye whatever it was he most aspired to be.”
This kind of characterisation allowed for Frank to connect with the readers.
“The column put a human cast on a bloodless topic,” he said. “A central skill for the writer, because people are the prism through which readers love to view the world.”
But after Frank established the importance of having relatable characters, he said that the next job is knowing where to find them. That’s something that he said can be pretty tough.
Where’s the first place that you go to find a person who’s moved out their home because of increasing property taxes? How do you find the man who has to travel 10 miles to buy a fresh apple? And even if you can find them, how do you get them to sit down and talk with you?
Frank’s suggestion: “If you can’t find people or if you don’t have any ideas of your own on where to start. One of the best places to start is at nonprofits.” He explained that these are places that regularly deal with the people you are looking for and they can help you find the color you need to tell a story.
“It is not as easy to interview a real person as it is to interview an official, but the gains are too great not to try.” He said. This because real people provide context, color and the specificity that make the story “real”. But this should not discourage writers from talking to officials either he said.
After all, most good journalist know there is no such thing as too many sources. The more people you interview, the richer and more contextual your writing becomes. It helps the writer (and therefore the reader) learn more about the situations. But when it comes to crafting a compelling narrative, it’s crucial to know what to leave out of a story too.
“There is a rule in journalism,” Frank said “one is more than three.” He was alluding to the fact that readers find it easier to follow one storyline than three. This is in line with another truism:When a thousand of people die in a hurricane, not many respond but if a single boy in stuck in a well, then the whole town is paralyzed until the situation is resolved. It is the power of personalization. Frank says that it is best to utilize this power of one when crafting a narrative story to connect with the reader.
After we discussed the need of characters, another problem that Frank said writer’s frequently face is finding the best way to explain the complicated back story and historical context. A writer could justifiably spend pages writing about the rationalization that go into measuring growth in emerging markets or the amount of history that’s needed to understand why redlining continues to shape housing markets today. But taking the time to explain these things halts the story to a screeching stop and bores the reader Frank said.
He continued that the answer isn’t to skip or skimp out of these contextual detail, but rather to find a good way to blend them into the story through, appositives phrases, where appropriate.
Frank conceptualizes stories as a journey and puts a premium on motion. Anytime the writer spends an extended period of time writing about something, it risking the loss of the reader.
In his book, Frank wrote that “a story is a trip down a river. As the captain of the ship, the writer must perform two duties: keep the boat moving and, at the same time, describe and explain the scenery to his passengers.”
Focusing on a strong central character, creating motion, and blending context with action will be enough to for any writer dealing with a daunting topic to bring the story down to reader’s level Frank said in our talk. And it is a point that enshrines in his book perfectly:
“Writers often neglect the emotional side of their stories.” Frank writes, “They shouldn’t. Human feelings are so powerful they can be the stuff of heart-stopper tales — even when the stories feature no car chases or perilous mountain adventures.”