“News stories can sometimes feel like islands,” says Dougal Shaw, senior video innovation journalist at BBC News. One-and-done stories that lack momentum.
News series, on the other hand, have the advantage of constantly building on a larger narrative and growing contact book.
Shaw is the creator of the network’s popular news series, CEO Secrets. It started in 2015 as “a pep talk with top professionals”. Seven years later, the series is still going strong, offering informal career advice from prominent business leaders.
First and foremost, CEO Secrets is a social media series designed to lure in audiences from Instagram, Facebook, and in recent years, LinkedIn — where the series feels right at home, before the BBC News’ 8 million followers. But the best bits often find their way onto television for the World Business Report and also appear on the business section of the website.
What are the secrets to creating a long-running news series? Shaw shared some tips on the Journalism.co.uk podcast.
The most important part of your series is your original idea. It has to be simple enough to replicate and not too sophisticated to craft. It can be helpful to reflect on missed opportunities within your news organization.
Shaw introduced CEO Secrets to quickly find interviewees who would be in the building anyway after giving more formal business interviews about finance and economics.
The very first guest in 2015 was Sir James Dyson, best known for inventing the Dyson vacuum cleaner. It’s a short and sweet 45 second interview with his tips for starting a business, looking straight into the camera lens for a distinctively informal style.
Tip: Start with small and simple ideas.
let yourself be inspired
Putting a new spin on old news is a tried and true journalistic approach. This also works well for functions.
Another series Shaw has helmed is My Shop, which explores the origins of quirky independent shops. This idea came from Humans of New York, a successful photo series by Brandon Stanton based on the premise that if you talk to them long enough, everyone has an interesting story to tell.
Tip: Look at what has been successful in the wider media world and put your own spin on it.
Think long-term and multi-format
People of New York eventually became one new york times’ best-selling book. CEO Secrets has followed a similar path and has just been published as a book that compiles the best advice from the seven-year series.
You may not want your series to become a physical product at first, but you may want to convert it into another medium. It might also be worth preserving the nuggets of wisdom you have to sacrifice along the way.
The book came about because Shaw felt that so much good advice had been lost in the editing process over the years.
“The nature of news is that you move on very quickly. But I couldn’t forget all the amazing things these people had said and I thought, ‘It’s a shame it was wasted’. With a book, you can go back and be efficient and repurpose great content,” says Shaw.
Tip: Preserve unreleased material worth sharing and turn it into a new medium.
Meetings: handle with care
Brainstorming meetings are rarely useful for conjuring up ideas. The best ideas come when you let your mind drift while commuting or washing dishes.
Continue reading: This is how you find ideas for new stories
However, meetings can be useful for getting feedback from colleagues. For example, over time, CEO Secrets has started to feature smaller business owners because of peers pitching in.
Shaw says, “Just do it. You only learn by actually getting your hands dirty and understanding what the pitfalls are and what people don’t like. Get a pilot and listen to your peers.”
Tip: Prioritize the completion of tasks and gradually improve your work.
Consider lightweight options
CEO Secrets is a mobile journalism series, meaning Shaw shoots and edits videos on his iPhone 12 (with an iPhone 6 as a backup option). He typically uses a portable plastic rig to shoot video, with lighting options rarely needed.
Continue reading: Five tips for getting started in mobile journalism
iPhones 6 and higher can record in 4k and offer sufficient resolution for the TV. It’s lightweight, which means on-the-fly interviews in corridors are quick and easy.
Smartphones capture video well, but Shaw recommends using an app like FiLMiC Pro. The biggest trap is audio, as the phone’s internal microphone is designed for calls at close range.
You can invest in an adapter that plugs into the Lightning connector and then plug in a transmit microphone. A cheaper option is to use lapel or clip-on microphones that plug directly into the phone.
Smartphones have a hidden benefit: they help guests settle in. Even media-savvy CEOs can be unsettled by a large broadcast camera and production teams hovering around.
“It helps when it’s done on the phone: an object they have of their own definitely relaxes them and it means you get a better post because they open up more.”
Tip: Use your smartphone to record videos so that your interlocutors can relax.
selection of winners
CEO Secrets has now grown to the point where Shaw can receive 20 pitches a day. So who deserves to be in the spotlight?
“It’s a gut feeling to decide which ones work,” he says. Potentially boring companies – in terms of what they do – could have amazing personal stories behind them. Big-shot CEOs might be in “promotional mode” and just there for PR.
These days, the show calls for dedicated performances rather than ad hoc interviews. This means that more time can be spent on the preliminary meeting and exploring the perspective.
He recommends choosing guests who lend themselves to visuals. In his case, does the company have an eye-catching visual product that you can film?
There’s also the issue of representation: Most of the pitches put forward are from PRs representing middle-aged white entrepreneurs. Shaw is very keen on promoting women and people of different ethnic backgrounds on his show. The message matters most, however, and guests should be able to go beyond repetitive, general advice.
Shaw likes to ask about the “aha” moment of her career. An interview with former Dragon’s Den investor and Nightcap bar group CEO Sarah Willingham provides the perfect example: Good life advice is often good career advice.
— Dougal Shaw (@dougalshawBBC) November 2, 2022
“It’s a story about sexism in the workplace,” he explains. “This isn’t just a business story, it has a wider resonance. Those are the stories I will always be drawn to.”
Tip: Select inspirational stories that pique curiosity or inspire action in your audience.
Take your guest’s advice
When interviewing experts, especially for advice-led series, keep in mind that their advice might apply to you.
“It’s a bit like a startup journey: have an idea, pilot it, involve stakeholders, push it relentlessly, try to get people interested in it.
“Everything I’ve learned from interviewing for the series, I’ve internalized that advice and must apply it myself,” Shaw concludes.
Tip: Be entrepreneurial and treat your series as if it were your business.
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