Great stories, as we all know, don’t have to be works of fiction.

by | Feb 19, 2020

In the early 2000s, as part of my master’s at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, Hong Kong University, I took a module on literary journalism.

The brainchild of one of our lecturers, the dogged and brilliant US true crime writer and reporter Gene Mustain, the course explored the fascinating art of creating ‘the drama of the factual’.

Gene showed us how literary journalism could use narrative techniques and structures to tell non-fiction stories that grab hold of readers every bit as dramatically as fiction.

He was fond of quoting legendary New York Times journalist Gay Talese, who wrote that the most average life is extraordinary – ‘if you can get to the truth of it’.

Talese said: “Artists of non-fiction can bring to people an enlarged clarification of their lives.”

On hot and humid Hong Kong evenings, Gene steered us towards iconic reporter-writers such as Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Qian Gang and Egon Erwin Kisch.

He drummed into us that everybody has a story to tell – if only we have the wit and wisdom to find it and report it properly.

We had to learn to listen and to take our time, he said, and to believe that real events and experiences in the world around us could be as revelatory and impactful as fiction.

I was – and am – a huge fan of this way of writing.

After all, some of the most gripping stories have grown from superficially humdrum experiences.

At the time, I was reporting on industry, business and non-governmental organisations in Greater China and Asia Pacific for English-language newspaper the South China Morning Post.

The people I interviewed were from all sorts of roles, walks of life and cultures – and a lot of them had mixed feelings about being in the news.

They might have been excited to share their business stories and insights, but quite often they were nervous, too, especially when English wasn’t their first language.

Many found it hard to believe readers would find their stories interesting, let alone want to find out how they had got to where they were.

Yet, their lives were packed with experiences that were inspiring and humbling – and, yes, sometimes embarrassing and funny, too.

This, to me, was what Gene Mustain and Gay Talese meant by ‘getting to the truth of it.’

I know now that this type of writing is also a highly effective way to explore what makes organisations and people tick in a way that people want to read about.

Since taking Gene’s course, I’ve used elements of literary journalism when I’ve been working on business books, as well as features, reports and in-house materials.

At NCW, alongside my team of fellow storytellers, the same questioning, listening and writing skills I learned and honed as a reporter are put to use in exactly the way my mentor instilled in us all those years ago – except now I work to find the ‘drama of the factual’ in companies.

The storyteller’s job, as Gene also said, is to find the extraordinary in even the tiniest detail.

Just as everybody has a story to tell, every company does as well. In deploying ‘wit and wisdom’, as Gene exhorted us to in class, we ensure we not only find the extraordinary in the everyday, but that we tell each and every story as it deserves to be too.

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