Sell vs. Surprise: Why there is a difference

I was visiting with an accomplished storyteller recently who was complaining about the producer stealing the surprise in his package.  The producer “gave it away” in the anchor intro.  Sound familiar?  This isn’t the first time frustration over producer’s ruining the story in intro’s has come up.  In fact “ Taking ownership from the first line of the anchor intro “was written to urge producers to be cognizant of the whole picture.  That said; there is another side.  As I spoke with this reporter it struck me.  The reporter was confusing the sell with the surprise in his story.  I thought back to many heated copy editing sessions where I would try and explain to reporters, over and over, that a certain element had to be in the intro.  Often I was dealing with seasoned reporters who consistently crafted compelling pieces.

As this industry continues to push the marketing side of things to maintain and grow audience, understanding the sell of your stories is going to get increasingly important.  Producers are being pushed to turn newscasts that look different.  Understanding what consultants and managers term “the sell” and “the surprise” in stories is crucial.  So let’s define both.

The sell is the reason you are doing the story.  It is the reason you think the audience will continue to watch the story instead of change the channel. You need to capture the audience’s attention in the anchor intro so there’s no chance to turn away.  That’s why the sell has to get into the anchor intro.  Producers will fight you and will win the battle to have the sell in the intro.  It cannot be totally saved as the surprise.

The surprise is the part of your story that will leave an imprint on the audience.  It is the fact that they will not stop thinking about.  It is the irony, the emotional connection, the incredible image, the climax of your story.  See the difference?

So why isn’t the sell the same as the surprise?  The surprise is the exclamation point.  The sell is the subject of the sentence.  The sell can allude to the surprise, but isn’t the actual surprise.  Here’s an example of how to preserve the sell and the surprise when they are closely linked.   Let’s say an amazing artifact was dug up at a construction site in your city.  You can say just that in the anchor intro. “Construction workers dug up an amazing artifact today.” The actual artifact can be the surprise.  Do not show an image of it in the intro or teases.  The fact that it’s something amazing and was dug up is the sell.  Strong story tellers will have that little extra, that goes beyond just saying what the artifact is.  Remember the surprise is the emotional connection.  What if, for example, you have an amazing sound bite that really explains why this artifact is incredible.  Maybe someone has been on the hunt for this artifact for years, and can finally see it and tell the viewer why he spent a lifetime looking for it.  That may be one of the surprises.  Then you can “giveaway” the actual artifact in the anchor intro.  You allude to that surprise in the pitch.

Often reporters would get angry that I or my producer wrote that an artifact was found, or possibly list what the artifact was.  It was the sell.  The story of why a man spent a lifetime trying to find it and the way the construction worker came across the artifact are the surprises in the reporter’s piece.

One final thought.  As a reporter you want to make darn sure the anchor intro to your piece is strong enough that the audience is waiting with anticipation for your story.  To do, that you have to give away some of the goods to get them to see your hard work.  The sell is the no brainer to do that.  Use that knowledge to your advantage so the surprises you craft truly wow the viewers.