What’s the point of an inverted pyramid?

It’s an instinct that’s as old as the human race itself.

The first people to walk the earth used stories to teach their children, to keep themselves safe – and to make each other smile.

Nine thousand years on, those ambitions are still at the heart of the BBC’s famous mission statement: to inform, educate and entertain.

And they were at the heart of an uplifting online festival that our media school staged this week.

Telling Tales 2020 brought hundreds of students together to be inspired by journalists, sports stars, film-makers, actors, writers, musicians and digital artists.

Each of them in their own way is a storyteller.

Yesterday we gathered seven of our graduates together to discuss their career journeys that have taken them into broadcasting, social media, PR, regional journalism, video-making and marketing.

They were all beautifully complimentary about the teaching and support they received here.

But are journalism tutors like us teaching the right storytelling techniques?

In the last few weeks – as I have done for the last five years, and as hundreds of journalism lecturers have done before me, I introduced our first years to the concept of the inverted pyramid.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

For anyone outside our eccentric industry, the phrase would mean nothing.

After all, what’s the point of an upside-down pyramid?

What indeed.

The argument is that a story should gently peter out. The argument is that it should pack its first few paragraphs with all the juiciest information. The argument is – often – that there should be argument, with the to-ing and fro-ing of a row woven into a story’s structure.

And the argument, finally, is that a sub – those unsung heroes of print newsrooms – should be able to cut the story from the bottom up without having to spend too much time checking that vital details weren’t being lost.

To a generation blissfully unaware of the other meaning of words such as stone, leg and hamper, this rightly sounds like madness.

And they’re not the only ones.

I spent an hour recently having my own instincts turned as upside down as the very best inverted pyramid by the inspirational Shirish Kulkarni.

He has incredibly wise and striking things to say about a lot of journalistic life, particularly about the media industry’s continuing complacency over diversity.

And it’s that tendency for monolithic, white middle-class male thinking to dominate news judgements that also fuels his desire to tell stories in different ways.

Ways which are more digestible, natural, accessible, and constructive.

Rather than stoking rows between politicians, can we shed more light than heat by downplaying their contributions to stories?

Rather than repeating the kneejerk, painting by numbers, coverage of annual fixtures like the Budget or the January rail fare increases, can we explore the issues involved in a more constructively challenging way?

Rather than covering marginalised communities only when they launch photogenic protests, can we bring them into the centre of our conversations?

Rather than turning off younger audiences with our outdated journalese, can we enthuse and engage them to be more participative citizens?

And rather than offer predictable takes which only serve to reinforce polarised positions, can we gently provide better information to anaesthetise conspiracy theories?

Shirish is a master storyteller himself, and so there’s no better way of understanding his mission than reading it or seeing him talk about it yourself.

I’m still not entirely ready to ditch the inverted pyramid altogether.

There are some situations and stories – emergency incidents spring to mind – where it’s a useful way of concentrating the journalistic mind.

But it shouldn’t be the only news storytelling show in town.

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