Lessons from a Master Storyteller

Steve Hartman - CBS News

To those skeptics who question the power of storytelling to persuade, inspire and motivate, I offer up Exhibit A: Steve Hartman.

Hartman, a long-time CBS News correspondent and current host of the weekly “On the Road” series, makes a compelling case for the positive impact of well-crafted stories.

Each of his segments is a master class in telling tales that thoughtfully blend emotion, wonder, humor and, above all, heart.

I’m regularly moved to tears after viewing one of his heartfelt vignettes. It’s not the camera work or production quality that moves me (though both are excellent) and it’s not the eclectic locales either.

No, I’m moved by the stories themselves.

Hartman—a fellow BGSU journalism alumnus—has a real knack for creating feel-good people profiles that are profoundly touching and memorable.

And though most of us don’t have access to sophisticated video equipment, professional crews, hefty travel budgets and the other resources of a world-class news organization, we do have access to the foundational elements of good stories.

Here are several storytelling lessons all of us can take away from Hartman’s handiwork and apply to our own organizations:

1. Nail the opening.

Hartman’s introductions are clever, poetic and draw viewers in to the larger story.

Just check out the way he launches this profile about a group of senior citizens who dole out advice to passersby in their community:

“Here at Tony Caputo’s market and deli in Salt Lake City—like in delis and donut shops across America—there’s a group of regulars: senior citizens who sit at the same table, sip a single cup of coffee, and proceed to know it all…”

2. Keep things simple.

Though his stories often involve unexpected twists and turns, at their core, they are simple narratives about individuals who excel, overcome great odds or bust stereotypes.

I love the simplicity of the segment below about a kid who honors his vow to achieve perfect attendance in honor of his sister, who earned her own perfect attendance certificate before losing her life to autoimmune hepatitis in 2006.

3. Write with purpose, clarity and detail.

What makes the “On the Road” segments so effective, in my opinion, is that they convey exceptional stories exceptionally well.

I’m particularly fond of Hartman’s narration while telling the story of a little boy with Down syndrome and autism, and a neighbor who builds a custom bench so the boy can sit and enjoy the American flag that captivates him:

“Norman Rockwell couldn’t have imagined a more uniquely American moment, a vision of strength and compassion in one glorious frame—all created by a master of kindness with nothing more on his palette than a circular saw and an eye for empathy.”

Now that’s good writing.

4. Showcase bravery and selflessness.

Look for opportunities to highlight ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Check out the middle-school math teacher (below) who steps up to adopt a 13-year-old student who’s caught up in the foster care system and desperately needs a kidney transplant.

5. Illuminate important social issues.

I just love the profile below of two young girls—one white, one black—who insist they are twins and present a convincing case that they’re 100 percent correct.

6. Include an element of surprise.

Stories that merely advance stereotypes and reinforce existing beliefs are dull. Aim to challenge, confound and expand the minds of your audience.

In the story below, I didn’t expect that Jennifer, a pregnant heroin addict, would cap her final court appearance by asking the tough-as-nails judge to officiate her wedding—or that he would end up developing a life-long bond with her.

7. Weave in important life lessons.

In a segment about an auto mechanic turned doctor, the protagonist makes a profound declaration about his decision to pursue the ambitious career shift:

“I would hear people say, ‘Carl, it’s going to take nine years to become a doctor.’ And I would say, ‘well, nine years is going to pass anyway, so I’d rather be someplace I’d wanna be than someplace that I could’ve been.’”

Amen, Carl…

8. Let personalities shine.

I dare you not to be charmed by the 97-year-old bagboy, Benny, who stubbornly refuses to take a break at work because it will cut into his four-hour shift.

9. End strongly.

After Hartman’s 92-year-old dad passed away recently, he assembled a poignant tribute to “the only man whose story he was literally born to tell.”

Describing his dad as “an accidental humorist,” he concludes the profile with a parting shot that could thaw the iciest of hearts:

“A great parent does a lot more than make you wash behind your ears. A great parent is a miracle worker who can mold a helpless blob like this one into a child who feels invincible. And though losing a parent can feel like kryptonite, remembering them in all of their glory can make your heart fly.”

I’m grateful to Hartman for reminding me of the power and potential of tales well told. To my fellow storytellers—both professional and amateur alike—I challenge you to join me in raising our collective game.