Conference Recap: Soledad O'Brien on Storytelling

October 16, 2011

CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O’Brien dropped out of Harvard University’s pre-med program in 1987, and she has since gone on to become an award-winning storyteller. When she realized that she didn’t have the same passion for medicine as others did but knew she enjoyed sharing other people’s stories, she left to work in news production.

“As I grew in age and also in ability as a journalist, I started to realize that I could leverage the power of my position to make change — change that I wanted to see both in journalism and in the stories that we told,” she told attendees at today’s opening General Session of the PRSA International Conference in Orlando, Fla.

O’Brien, who has worked at CNN since 2003, has reported breaking news from around the globe and produced documentaries on many important stories facing the world today.

She told Conference attendees about some of the challenges that her parents encountered in their early life as an interracial couple and how this helped her frame some of the stories that she would later go on to tell as a journalist in her “In America” documentary series on CNN.

“The bigger message is about envisioning the life that you could lead and that you felt you deserved to lead, minimizing external voices and having a certain kind of bravery about the choices that you make,” she said. “These are diverse stories that have value, and we’re judged on ratings, revenue and reputation.”

O’Brien said that her CNN series has found success because the brand is aligned with telling authentic stories that answer the question, “What does it mean to be Black, gay or Latino in America?”

“At a time when branding and messaging is more critical that ever, we’ve been able to cut through the noise to create content that is relevant, well done and also has become well known,” she said.

O’Brien likened the challenges of television journalism to that of the PR profession, specifically citing technology. “Everything is moving so fast and it’s unclear how we can leverage technology to make it work for us instead of working for it,” she said. “We’re definitely getting more technology but is it better? You’re in a better position today than ever before. There are more outlets and more opportunities. And there is a greater need because of that to cut through all the clutter. Technology, of course, makes access cheaper and easier.”

Another crossover between the two trades is storytelling, according to O’Brien. “We both deal in stories,” she said. “Humans have always been connected to stories. Storytelling is more than just a compelling fact.”

Pitching a story

She also imparted advice to PR professionals regarding the craft of pitching a story. “Sometimes people feel like they want something from me when, actually, we are both in the service industry,” she said. “Both of our jobs are about giving something to someone. I provide a service and I tell stories for our viewers. And when people create obstacles — that frustrates me. So if someone pitches you and it’s not about what you do, it’s almost offensive. 

“Or, conversely, when people on my side of the business do stories that are impossible to understand and have no magic, no heart or soul, no character, we deserve that criticism.”

O’Brien was careful to discern between statistics and stories, saying that people often confuse the two. “It’s about a story,” she said. “ ‘One out of five kids is in poverty.’ That’s not a story, it’s a stat. You have to find out how to turn that into a story. And the more you know about someone, the more you can provide nuance about what you’re trying to say. Good storytelling is riveting, well done and well toned. Reputation is important.”

She asked that PR pros remember to get to know journalists and find out who they are and what they cover. Learn what stories compel them, what they like in a character and what type of story they would want to share with others.

“Ultimately, cutting through the clutter is about passion, authenticity, plus emotion, plus energy,” she said. “And it’s that passion that underlies it all.”

She also offered advice for students who are moving into the professional world: Figure out what your passion is regarding your career and also regarding the stories that you’re pitching.

“When someone talks to me about passion, it makes me fall in love with a story,” she said. “A statistic can never have passion. The only way to break through the noise is with those stories.”

In closing, O’Brien touched on the theme of this year’s Conference: Imagine. Create. Inspire. “Whether they’re on the end of telling stories as I am, or they’re on the other side seeing the stories, or [whether it’s] you finding those stories and connecting all of us, people want to be inspired,” she said. “For people in this room, imagine, create, inspire is not just a slogan — it has to be a mission.”

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


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