A Brief Secret

By Kath Walters @kathwalters

Producing engaging content tops the list of the 10 biggest challenges that Australian marketers face, according the recent study, Content Marketing in Australia 2015: Budgets, Benchmarks and Trends

Of the 251 marketers surveyed, one in two (50%) named producing engaging content as a challenge even bigger than lack of budget (a close second at 48%) and producing content consistently (46%).

So here’s a secret: a big part of the recipe for story quality is the story brief. 

A story brief that asks all the right questions is like a treasure map, and the destination is a “sticky” story, one that your readers cannot put down because it is timely (they have to read it now), relevant (it’s like it was written just for them) and trusted (well-researched, and with the readers’ interests foremost). 

I have been a journalist for close to two decades, and yet I never start a story without writing myself a brief. Yep, I actually write my own brief, even if my editor hasn’t given me one … and even if she has. 

I’m not talking about a bureaucratic document here, like a contract. I am talking about the kind of brief that makes a story come alive even before it is written.

I would really like to thank Kathryn (Kate) Bice, the clever woman who ran Fairfax’s training unit long ago (when they had one) for this invaluable tip that has proved so trusty over the decades. Kathryn now works for the Walkley Foundation. 

Why a tight story brief works

It’s funny how a story evolves as you write it. Story research leads you in all sorts of directions, and there’s no doubt that you can get lost in a sea of information. Without a tight brief, it’s quite possible for you, or the writer working for you, to completely forget the original idea and impetus for the story. 

Coming back to the brief helps focus the story once we have all the material together, to keep the relevant and ditch the irrelevant (no matter how interesting and cool it is.)

But there’s more! Writing a story brief can alert if your story is a dud before you even start it (so you can shift the angle), and will save you heaps of time in research and interviews because your web searches and questions will be tight and focused.

If you are commissioning writers, the story brief will forestall most disappointments (with poor stories turned in on deadline) and will end all disputes about what you were after, and what was agreed to.

And, it’s only one page long.

Kathryn’s cool story brief

I’m pretty sure that I have stuck more or less to the original that Kathryn served up in that day of training long ago. Of course, you might like to research other people’s ideas on briefing, such as this one by Bad Language, and this alternative by Copywrite Matters. But I have to say that in my view, they miss the special sauce that makes Kathryn’s brief zing. I’ll explain why as I go through.

Story theme 

What broadly is the story about? Urban farms? Productivity apps? Relationship failure?
The beauty of this is that it is the first step towards a story, but it doesn’t shut down any possibilities that might become apparent during the research.

Editor’s brief:

This is the nuts and bolts of what the editor has asked you to do (or what you as the editor want). An 800-word feature story with two side bars. A 500-word case study with three tips. A quiz. We always do what our editor says! 


No explanation necessary. If you are commissioning, allow some leeway until you know the journalist well.

Who will read this story?

Here we get to the pointy end. I love this question. Answered with some thought, it takes us way past generalisations (urban designers) into specifics. Our urban farms story is destined for a website for architects and urban designers. But not all of them will find it interesting. Which ones will? Those working closely with local councils, or government housing schemes, those with an interest in place making or sustainability. Or the sceptics who think urban farming in namby pamby rubbish. Think about just who precisely you want to read your story.

Why will readers want to read this story?

This is an even better question than the last! Even an urban designer interested in sustainability will NOT read unless they find something they want or need. What is it? Essential facts to include in their next tender? Inspiration? Warnings and lessons about what can sabotage the best laid plans for an urban farm?

What are the points I want to make in this story?

Although these may change, it’s good to start with a sense of where you are going. For example: Urban farms: there is growing interest in urban farms and community gardens. This has been sparked by worries about food quality and freshness, the environmental cost of industrial farming and a growing recognition of social capital. But do they work? Are they safe? Can they go wrong?

Who are my contacts?

Here we think through how many people, and which ones, we need to talk to gain an understanding of the story theme.  This is helpful because it’s a great place to start our research and we spot weaknesses early. For example, are we only talking to women about how to bake a Pidgeon Pie, or only talking to white men over 45 about leadership? 

Seven questions and you are on your way

Whether you are writing or briefing a writer these seven questions are a powerful way to get to the heart of a story, its value, strengths and weaknesses, and deliver engaging content every time.