The Banaszynski Beer Rule: Storytelling lessons from Jacqui B.

By Rebecca Dell 

Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair in Journalism, University of Missouri. Photo courtesy of the Missouri School of Journalism.

Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair in Journalism, University of Missouri. Photo courtesy of the Missouri School of Journalism.

DENVER — She’s told the story before, and Jacqui Banaszynski, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and Poynter Institute, will no doubt tell it again:

Back when Ann Bancroft (the explorer, not the actress) dogsledded to the North Pole on an otherwise all-male expedition, Banaszynski, then a reporter writing a profile on Bancroft for the one-year anniversary of the trip, set up an interview with her. The problem was that Bancroft didn’t want to be the token woman on the trip, so she refused to talk about the gender element. She’d been covered in every other way possible, it seemed, and in desperation, Banaszynski turned to a crusty, ex-Marine editor and asked what he’d ask Bancroft over a couple of beers.

I wanna know, he said, how she peed.

And with that question, awkwardly phrased during a stiff interview, Banaszynski captured Bancroft’s interest. Suddenly, Bancroft opened up to talking about aspects of being a woman versus a man on the expedition. And Banaszynski coined the crowdsourcing Banaszynski Beer Rule: What would you ask Joe Mysterious over a beer?

Banaszynski shared this and many other stories during her session at Health Journalism 2014, the annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Her own verbal storytelling echoed her topic: “Crafting compelling health stories.” She reminded the reporters, editors and public relations personnel in the room that not every tip she shared would work for every person, but as a whole the tips provide a wealth of possible tactics to take when reporting and patching a story. Here are a few, named in honor of her Banaszynski Beer Rule:

Beer Tip #1: Look for narrative elements while reporting. Collect lots of those details, then decide what belongs in the story. Elements include universal theme, character, scene, emotion, tension, dialogue, action, plot and telling detail.

Beer Tip #2: Be a storyteller, but don’t force narrative where it doesn’t belong. Sometimes a better option is to insert a relevant narrative element rather than a full-blown narrative.

Beer Tip #3: Look for an archetype or theme in the story. Write the story around whoever has most at stake. One of Banaszynski’s friends says there are only two archetypes: Stranger comes to town; man takes a journey.

Beer Tip #4: Write mini-profiles to develop non-central characters.

Beer Tip #5: Be scenic. Think like a filmmaker, who uses a scene to show meaningful, tight action. Think of your notebook as a camera, and take pictures from all distances and angles.

Beer Tip #6: Explain your terms, no matter whom you’re writing for.

Health journalists can apply some of these tips, although Banaszynski cautioned against forcing narrative elements on stories that are purely process, such as a city council meeting. But she also said that sometimes the details surrounding process stories — who was in the room when the vote was taken? What were the constituents wearing to the rally? When did the clinic open? — can provide leads to the underlying story.

(By the way, apparently it’s easier for women than men to pee in the Arctic. Who knew!)

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