The way in which we consume ‘content’ has undoubtedly changed. From newspapers to magazines, radio, television and the many platforms offered up by the internet, there’s an ever-evolving process through which people can find out about the world around them.
But, while the method of delivery may have changed one thing has remained constant – and even pre-dates all of the media above. Quite simply it’s in our nature as human beings to be interested in the things that happen to fellow human beings.
No matter how it is delivered, a good human interest story has always had power. The best journalists and writers are able to recognise how stories impact on people and bring this power out to great effect.
It’s important to understand what a human interest story is, how it’s delivered, what the impact is and what lessons can be learned when it comes to almost any piece of content. Explore the different content types we create at Zazzle Media here.
A human interest story puts people at the heart of the events. Doing this brings a two-fold benefit. It gives the reader someone to relate to and taps into our natural curiosity in the lives of others.
The emotion of others can raise awareness of worthy causes and help people to realise the real human impact of a whole host of issues, ranging right up from local politics to war and everything in between. These stories also, at a simple level, can give readers something fun, amusing, emotional or thought-provoking to engage with.
John Dilley, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Leicester Centre for Journalism, is undertaking research into how local and national newspapers covered the First World War.
His blog offers a real-time week-by-week account of how the conflict was reported 100 years ago in the Market Harborough Advertiser. He told me how one thing in particular shines out from the pages of 1914 and 1915 that he’s looked at so far:
“When you look at those papers from 100 years ago, of course they’re different – the size of the newspaper, the page layout, the language used in the headlines – but you know what the core of those stories is all about? It’s human interest.”
In a series of moving letters from the front in particular, the human impact of the horrors of war hit home much harder than the ‘party line’ dispatches printed by the nationals and, for John, show how the desire to relate stories to real people has always been important and continues to have resonance in today’s world.
He said: “It crosses over the decades and generations. It has always been like that.
We’ve always wanted to read human interest stories – it’s just about getting people – whether that be newspapers, social media followers or clients – to realise that that’s what readers want.
“I think it’s the single most important thing for the reader and I think it is for the journalist as well.”
To help you to plan where your human interest stories will fit into the wider picture, use our Editorial Content Planning Calendar which is downloadable here:
John tells would-be students that there are three reasons why people train to be journalists. The first two are the chance to write and also to be creative but: “The most important part is because we’ve got an interest in people and if you’ve got an interest in people then you can find stories about people that other people will want to read about.”
Everyone has a story to tell, however big or small. Writers and journalists need to develop an instinct for finding the issues that are relevant to their readership.
A good writer doesn’t just commit pen to paper – or indeed pound away at the keyboard – they should also be a good listener and be naturally curious about the world around them.
You’ll have nothing to write without good, powerful material. Interview technique is probably a separate piece entirely, but suffice to say you need to ask plenty of questions, be inquisitive without being intrusive and don’t be too rigid. The worst interviewers simply ask a list of questions, robot fashion, without reacting to what is said and exploring the answers further. Often comments that could be ‘throwaway’ actually form the heart of a powerful human interest piece. The same logic applies to research for an article, as interesting facts or information can take you off into a different – sometimes more interesting – direction than you originally considered.
The power of any story or piece of content can easily be lost if the writing does not do it justice. When it comes to human interest stories it is not the job of the writer to take centre stage. Powerful, purposeful prose should underpin any good story – but you must let the emotion of the piece come through from the subject. It’s not a task in proving how clever you are.
Strong, emotive quotes should be at the heart of the text, featuring as quickly and prominently as possible – and those words should be backed up by heartfelt photos and videos. Don’t simply tell the reader what you’ve seen, heard or felt – let them find that emotion for themselves.
The strength of Facebook and Twitter merely opens up new avenues for human interest stories. Stories can emerge on social media and be spread quickly and effectively this way. A powerful piece will be something that is worth sharing, posting and re-tweeting. If the reader is sufficiently moved by a story they will pass that on to their followers.
If anything, regional news reporters have been liberated by this – their work can go beyond their traditional geographical boundaries to a potentially global audience.
The recent example of Winnie Blagden from Sheffield shows this. BBC Radio Sheffield made an appeal for cards on behalf of Winnie, who has no surviving family and not much contact with the outside world beyond her carers, ahead of her 100th birthday.
The appeal went viral – reaching an audience far beyond the station’s 240,000 listeners and 10,200 Facebook followers – and saw presents and cards pledged from far and wide – including the US. Good human interest content is universal.
People who write content do need to think about different platforms. The heart of the story is the same but, for example, the picture is crucial to help catch the eye on Facebook while strong headlines or stand-out quotes work well to jump out of a busy Twitter timeline. Again, these platforms don’t change the heart of the story – it’s just that different parts of the presentation of the story matter more depending on where they are shared.
Consider, too, the rise of the Vlogger. The YouTube shows produced by these people invite us into their lives and homes. We invest in them and their lives and they are able to deliver matter on what feels like a one-to-one individual level. Our human connection with the subject makes the content more enjoyable and powerful.
Strong human interest stories can tug at the heart strings like no other – and the most high profile examples can set the news agenda.
Consider the case of Stephen Sutton. The 19-year-old cancer patient caught the public imagination with his story and online ‘bucket list’ of ambitions to achieve before he died. His emotional case inspired donations and support totalling £4.5million – money that, one year on, has been donated to helping others in his heartbreaking situation. Perhaps just as significantly, his case also inspired other cancer sufferers, who took heart from his brave battle.
Each of us knows the devastating impact of cancer – but this human interest story had the power to move many of us into actually acting and making a difference.
The case of Alan Barnes had a similarly powerful impact on the public psyche.
The vulnerable 4ft 6in pensioner was attacked by a mugger but, thanks to the kind fundraising of a stranger, was able to benefit from the generous help from people in his community and beyond. He was also able to see his attacker brought to justice.
The heartwarming moment when he met the woman behind the campaign that helped him was a feelgood resolution to a sad story, which had also raised a debate on our unhealthy attitude to image and disability and the sort of legal highs used by his attacker.
When it comes to powerful stories, there can be few as emotional as that of baby Teddy, who was just minutes old when he became the world’s youngest organ donor. His parents had signed him up when it became apparent that their child would only live for a day or two.
His story was so moving that it encouraged 15,000 people to sign up to the NHS donors register.
These are three recent high profile examples of the power that strong human interest stories possess. But, of course, these are rare or extreme examples and we shouldn’t think just of these cases when we consider the impact of the human touch in content.
Consider a ‘bread and butter’ newspaper issue such as hospital parking charges, for example. This story from the Halifax Courier is a perfectly acceptable account of a change of policy from the local hospital to introduce charges for disabled people.
It would clearly be a strong page lead in a print paper and is a good web story that has attracted 20 comments from readers. But consider how much more powerful this, slightly older, story from the Gloucester Citizen is. The strong quotes from the subject and the picture (which isn’t done justice on this link) of a person rather than a ‘scene setter’ of a hospital would make this a more prominent story. It’s the same subject matter as the first link but it’s more emotive and engaging for having a person at its heart.
John Dilley used to teach the vagaries of local government to students and preached the mantra ‘council is people’ to hammer home that, at their heart, all stories come down to how they impact on people.
John’s local government mantra could easily apply in a wider sense. Put simply, ‘content is people’ in that the best writing makes matters relevant and interesting to people.
That’s the clear lesson that all writers can take from the power of the human interest story. Clearly not everything we write will have the power of Stephen Sutton or Teddy – but these and other cases show how it’s easier to engage with even the most complex or challenging subject matter when people are at its heart. Keeping this in mind as writers encourages us to deliver the most engaging content possible for a host of different brands or issues.
For businesses, the challenge is to realise that their customers appreciate seeing their ‘human side’. There’s also a need not to be inward-looking – if your company and the individuals within it do great things then share them.
Every company has a story to tell and they shouldn’t be afraid to tell it, offering a personal account of how and why they were formed and developed.
Staff bios shouldn’t be stuffy or factual either. A business that prides itself on the talents and individual qualities of its staff should let their stories shine and put them across properly. Google, after all, values authentic content and this can help you to deliver that.
Personal and individual touches to on page content make a matter interesting and tap into some of the power of the human interest story. The exciting thing for journalists and writers is that the ability to convey this is important – it’s now up to us to show how we can use this power in a multitude of ways to help businesses stand out from the crowd and succeed.