Narrative Conference Inspires Improvisation

BOSTON, 1st April 2016: Boston University's annual Power of Narrrative conference kicked off today. (Photo by: Nikita Sampath/BUNS)
Written by Carly Sitrin

By Carly Sitrin
BU News Service

If Saturday’s theme at BU’s Power of Narrative conference was in-depth reporting and research, day two was all about improvisation.

Although great narrative nonfiction requires pouring over primary documents and analyzing data, most writers will credit their success to just the right amount of sheer luck. Breakout speakers at the conference addressed the level of necessary flexibility when reporting on unfamiliar territory, or courting a slippery source.

Jina Moore, Global Women’s Rights reporter at Buzzfeed News, hosted a session called “How to Get What You Need Without Being a Jerk,” where she gave tips and tricks for foreign reporting. Moore said the first step to being a successful and respected cultural writer is to acknowledge and overcome your assumptions.

“You have to always think about what you’re missing or what your biases are,” Moore said “a lot of bad can come from trying to do good.”

Moore said that while reporters often go into a country with a set of prepared questions and story-angles, the most important thing you can do is listen to the people you’re communicating with and adapt to them. Too often, Moore said, individuals quoted in news articles can seem like props to serve the reporter’s idea.

“These people aren’t just numbers of bodies or statistics,” Moore said “they have to be as real on the page as they are to their families.”

Moore said some of her favorite stories didn’t come from the well-packaged press releases of NGOs or humanitarian organizations but rather from the people themselves. And that’s not something you can plan for.

Moore also participated in a keynote panel with Alia Malek, Farah Stockman and Sandy Tolan where the four writers discussed risky techniques that they’ve tried when dealing with sensitive topics.

Malek, author and civil rights lawyer, talked about reader fatigue surrounding global stories like the internal disintegration of Syria. For Malek, the answer came in the form of a comic.

“There’s always that authoritative piece on Syria written by a white guy who doesn’t speak Arabic,” Malek said. “People get bored and stop paying attention.”

The graphic representation of Syrian refugees’ travels to Germany hadn’t originally been in her outline. Malek said seeing her prose chopped up and attached to images was not what she envisioned at first but ultimately gave her story a farther reach.

But in the end, Malek said that it’s not about the reporter’s ideas. It’s about the subject.

“We’re not entitled to anyone’s stories,” Malek said “It’s a privilege to drop into someone’s life.”

Keynote speaker Mary Roach closed out the conference with a similar sentiment. Her “7 Bad Habits of Highly Effective Narrative,” included concepts that wouldn’t be out of place in an improvisational comedy class. She promoted “saying yes,” “being unprepared,” “getting in over your head” and “being disorganized.”

“I’m the gateway drug to science,” Roach said, referencing her position in the journalistic world as a snarky outsider who makes unsavory topics palatable. Roach talked about participating in a fart test, being observed having sex with her husband, and examining “alleged ectoplasm.”

Roach said she constantly creates outlines for her books only to throw them out the window when she encounters a really compelling character. Roach credited her journalistic success to her flexibility, humor and ability to “act your shoe size, not your age.”

“If it takes maggots and farts to get people curious about science,” Roach said, “then so be it.”


  • When reporting on an unfamiliar culture, partner with someone you trust who knows the turf.
  • LISTEN TO YOUR SUBJECTS. The story you think you want, might not be relevant to the people it’s about.
  • Hey, podcasts are still cool. Everyone remember podcasts.
  • Be wary of the journalistic herd. If everyone’s looking left, find the story on the right.
  • Treat people like human beings with thoughts and feelings (this goes for general life too).
  • Mary Roach is an absolute icon that we all wish we could listen to for days. And high-five.

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