As many writers have pointed out, there are skills you need to be successful in the working world that you do not learn in college.
Alas, there is no class in “life 101.”
The closest I’ve come is my journalism class in high school. No, really.
In my first year after college, I began to see a pattern at work. The skills and prior experience that benefited me most could be traced back to my time on the high school newspaper staff.
I was a staff writer for all 4 years; I wrote news articles, “features,” and an editorial column. We published a paper every month, affectionately dubbed “The High Life,” and started an online blog for more time-sensitive pieces. (Truly, we were before our time.)
We called our advisor “Coach” because he doubled as the tennis coach. Journalism and tennis were (still are!) his two passions in life. More recently, he’s added biking to the mix… as I write this, he’s completing his second cross-country bike ride. But that’s a story for another day.
Coach ran our class like a real newsroom. He pushed us. He wanted us to take it seriously. As a result, we were really proud of our work.
When I run into high school friends who were on the staff, we talk about the impact Newspaper has had on our lives. Several of those classmates went on to pursue careers in journalism: one worked for CNN, and now she’s a Producer / Reporter with ABC News.
But my point is this: whether or not we chose a journalism-related field, each of us has massively benefited from the real-world skills we developed in Newspaper class.
How to find inspiration in everything
There are stories all around us. You have to train yourself to see them.
At the beginning of every class period, Coach would lead us in a brainstorming session. We kept lists on the whiteboard throughout the month. As high school students, we made a lot of excuses for our lack of ideas and inspiration.
It was easy when the football team won a game, or a “genius” student earned a prestigious scholarship — but most days, I’d sit in class racking my brain for anything remotely interesting that might count as a worthy “idea.”
Coach taught us to broaden our perspectives when it came to finding stories.
Good stories aren’t always about “events.” Stories are about people.
The coach encouraged us to keep our eyes and ears open. Being a good journalist is about going deeper to find the stories that other people can’t, or won’t, see.
Ask questions. Ask why.
In class, it would go something like this: someone would raise their hand and say, “The cafeteria is closed until next Tuesday.” And Coach would say, “Ok. Is there a story there?” We’d find out.
The key is in asking “why?” A quick trip to the admin office later, and we might find out there’s a giant sinkhole beneath the cafeteria, or a gas leak, or… well, you get the point. Newsworthy? I’d say so. The seemingly unassuming announcement reveals something more interesting.
In my first job at a marketing agency, I found this skill especially useful in creating content for my clients. I could look at a brand or business with a critical eye and find relevant content in everything: their origin story, their team, their mission, their volunteer work.
A client may say something to you in conversation, and you have to take the initiative to say, “That’s a story.” Approaching my work with a journalistic eye allowed me to create content that connected with audiences.
How to recognize the “angle” of a story
Finding your angle is about asking, “What’s unique about this story?”
What’s your “spin” on the story?
We can’t write about everything — you know this as well as I do. When you write a piece, you write with one argument or takeaway in mind. It’s our job as writers to guide the readers’ thoughts down a particular path. You include only the most valuable information to support your point.
In high school, a lot of our content featured high-performing students or athletes. How did we keep things fresh? It starts with an appreciation for people’s differences; as journalists, we would dig a little deeper to discover what set each person apart.
OK, cool, so-and-so scored a scholarship… what’s different about their journey? Maybe they’re the first in their family to go to college. Maybe they followed a crazy strict morning routine to come out on top.
What’s the angle?
Coach would say, “Don’t bury the lead.” As a journalist, there’s no such thing as “saving” the good stuff for the end. Your angle is your hook. That’s what will catch a reader’s attention and keep it.
Writing for clients at my big-girl job was no different. It’s important to think about the “angle” of your piece even when you’re writing shorter-form content, like ad copy or marketing materials. And it’s especially critical for branding. What’s your value proposition? What makes you different?
You’ll be a stronger writer if you learn to identify the “angle” of your piece.
How to have confidence talking to others
When I joined the newspaper staff as a freshman, I was shy and introverted. I’m grateful now that I was never allowed to use that as an excuse.
I interviewed faculty, staff, and students for my articles. This often meant I was in the admin office — and it was pretty intimidating to approach these authority figures. (I’d certainly never expected to find myself in the principal’s office. Much less on a weekly basis.) Needless to say, this was totally outside of my comfort zone.
It was embarrassing to interrupt a class in the middle of the day and ask to “borrow” a student or chat with a teacher.
And that wasn’t even the hardest part. You might think interviews are easy; oh, sure, they do all the talking and give you all the information you need, and you can go on your merry way and write the world’s best article. Not quite.
As a journalist, you’ve got to take the lead. Most people won’t know exactly what you need, and even when you’re prepared with a list of questions, they might only give you the surface-level answers (the “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where” without the “why”).
An interview is like a conversation. In that sense, I learned to be a more natural conversationalist.
You have to be an active listener, and you have to be curious. You strike a balance between keeping the conversation on track and allowing it to unfold organically.
As an employee, you have to know how to communicate with your boss, coworkers, and clients. In a sense, you’re “interviewing” your clients every day to better understand their brand, their business, and their needs. These are just basic people skills.
Interviewing strangers around campus trained me to be comfortable talking with people I’d never met. It bolstered my confidence in meeting new people, having conversations, and asking for the information I needed.
How to do my research
As a journalist, you can’t take anything at face value. You have to do your research, your due diligence. When you’re pursuing a story, you talk to multiple sources. You check the facts. Making assumptions is a big no-no.
There’s preliminary research to do, too. If you have a basic knowledge of the topic at hand, you’ll ask better questions.
It’s all about credibility. Our goal for our high school paper was to be a credible source of school news for the student body. That meant it was our responsibility to report the facts. You’ll lose credibility with your audience if you print something that’s incorrect or outdated.
Research is one of the best methods of preparation. When I started working, it became obvious to me that not all newbies know how to research. I felt doubly thankful for the years of experience that ingrained this skill.
A few quick thoughts on “doing your homework”: (1) Don’t underestimate a simple Google search. Look to social media; LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook. (2) Sift through the database at work or your task management system for more background on a particular client or project. (3) Ask to take a look at a coworker’s notes.
How to meet deadlines
In Newspaper, there was no such thing as saying you couldn’t finish an article because you felt “uninspired” or your story just “wasn’t ready.”
We had a hard deadline each month for sending the paper off to print.
Putting out our paper each month became an extrinsic motivator for working hard to produce quality articles by the deadline. Not to mention, there was the shame of letting down the entire staff if one of us missed deadline.
Each of us had a role to play, and there was no “hand-holding” from Coach. As a staff writer, I was responsible for researching, writing, and turning in my articles on time.
I learned how to work backward from a deadline to determine how much time I’d have for each phase (interviewing, drafting, revision).
Deadlines are critical in the working world. Similarly to our experience in Newspaper, there are “real” consequences if you miss a deadline — it’s not your “grade” on the line, but your reputation as an employee or a company.
When I was in high school, Newspaper was just a class. A class I loved, sure — but I couldn’t have anticipated how those skills would benefit me for years to come.
It just goes to show that you can learn valuable lessons from the unlikeliest of places.
Say what you will about the future of journalism — but the principles I learned in that class have been, by far, the most valuable skills in life and in my professional career.
I’m thankful for those four years, and I’m thankful for Coach and how he pushed us to be better students, better writers, and better people.