Board Election

Surprise! Lessons On ‘Surprise Moments’ From A Murrow Winner For Writing

June 22, 2020 11:00

By Jeff Butera, Author, “Write Like You Talk”

Murrow Monday is a regular series going behind the scenes of Murrow Award-winning journalism. 

Joy Lambert and I do the same thing.

Every year, when the winners of the Regional Edward R. Murrow Awards are announced, I’ll spend a couple hours binge-watching the winning entries.

I love seeing the different storytelling techniques, style and strategies, and figuring out what I can apply (read: steal!) in my own writing.

So does Lambert, an anchor/reporter at WBFF in Baltimore. Saying she likes to see stories from the reporters she admires to “get inspired,” Lambert will watch as many Murrow-winning entries as she can.

This year, one of the winning entries she’ll see is hers:

Watching her entry – stories about children caught in the crossfire of violence, an attack on our own industry and a long-term fixture in her community – one thing becomes clear: Lambert loves surprises.

Moments that leave you saying ‘oh, I didn’t see that coming’ are peppered throughout her powerful, effective, memorable stories.

She recently talked to me about surprises, why she always wears headphones when she writes, why she’s a “perpetual over-logger” and the perfect advice from her 4-year-old son.

BUTERA: You clearly see the value in surprises; they're built into all three of your stories. Why are they so important to you?                                                                          

LAMBERT: Oooh! I love a good reveal! When someone asks you about a movie, the first thing you ask is, ‘Have you seen it? Are you going to see it? I don’t want to ruin the surprise for you.’

That suspense is what drives storytelling, whether it’s a movie, show or local news. It’s the payoff for the viewer, the rewarding reveal.

It’s easy to forget when you’re running-and-gunning in the deadline-driven, two-stories a day, local news beast, but it’s also how I start my day.

What can I reveal? What’s one nugget I can hold on to that will elevate this story and make an even deeper impact?

A successful reveal will make the viewer feel. If you get goosebumps, a heart flutter or even simply pause that's a successful reveal.

In the first piece (in my Murrow submission), "Through the Window," my photojournalist, Alanna Delfino and I knew going into the story we were going to have a layered approach to reveals.

The first reveal was the connection to another young girl shot in Baltimore City; the second is the big reveal, that the little girl survived.

You could easily tell this story starting with the little girl and talking about the journey she's been through. However, drawing the viewer in to this world, to this grandmother, her eyes, the poverty, the family violence and making them care about their story before delivering a reward makes that reveal so much more powerful.

The question we wrestled with on this piece was when to reveal the little girl survived. Is it mean to make the viewer wait for that payoff? We discussed the reveal and rewrote it several times (in the one day we had to work on the story). Ultimately, we felt waiting made for a better payoff and makes the brief moments with her even more memorable.

In the second piece, "Journalists Matter" – this one is also with photojournalist Alanna Delfino – we again discussed ahead of time what reveals could be effective in this story.

The idea is to keep drawing the viewer into the story, to keep dropping clues or nuggets of information along the way that surprise them.

You're in a room with a photographer editing photos, but when you find out who the subjects are it draws the viewer in even more.

The second reveal is when you find out who the photographer is and learn that he was also in the room during the mass shooting.

We knew going into the story that we would reveal him through his personal photo, so we had to lead the viewer on a journey to get there.

The viewer had to be drawn in so when they see his self-portrait it makes them pause, or hopefully goosebumps or chills, but I'm not picky.

Draw them in, make them feel, make them care, then surprise them. A surprise only works if the viewer already cares about the story.

BUTERA: You let your interview subjects drive your pieces. In the brilliant piece about the photographer, it's really just you filling in gaps between what he's saying. To pull that off, you have to conduct a great interview. How do you approach the interview process?

LAMBERT: My role in telling a great story is simply connecting the dots.

That doesn't mean I need an hour for an interview; I just need to collect moments with a subject.

That being said, the piece with the photographer, "Journalists Matter," was a very long interview because I knew he was going to drive the piece.

Alanna and I met the photographer after our normal shift and spent about two hours in his home.

We had two interview locations in the home and I asked a lot of the same questions in both spots, to protect the reveal in the writing process.

The beautiful thing about this story is that I really did not ask very many questions.

When we moved him to his studio, we asked him to grab the portfolio and tell me about each picture.

We let him tell the story and that's what's conveyed in the writing as well.

Going through the portfolio first also helped him to open up for when I eventually asked him about where he was on the day of the massacre.

One of my favorite moments in the "Journalists Matter" piece is at 6:43, the pause and hesitation he emotes catches me every time I watch the story.

I like to let my subjects think, give them time to feel, even time to feel uncomfortable in silence, that's where the cadence of the story is determined and in many cases you find your most powerful moments.

If an interview feels rushed, your story will as well.

BUTERA: What's the logging process like for you? Do you log every piece of video, or just the interviews?

LAMBERT: I'm what I like to call a "perpetual over-logger." I log EVERYTHING. I log crickets, I log wind, I log laughter, I log glances, I want to know every piece of video I have to work with.

In the photographer piece the most obvious use of that is right off the top with the line, “It’s a battle of light and dark” and a perfectly paired shot to go with it.
It helps my writing process to know what video we have.

One of my greatest accomplishments is when I write to a shot and the photographer comes back and says, "I didn't even know I had that."

BUTERA: Once you're logged, how do you go about writing the piece? (Are you listening to anything while you write? Do you like to write at your desk or elsewhere? Do you outline first? Handwrite the piece or type it?)

LAMBERT: I like to sit on my deck with a glass of wine and patio lights shining, but who are we kidding, does anyone have time for that?

I write at my desk, under the ugly florescent newsroom lights.

Now this is my big secret: I always wear my headphones when I'm writing. I'm hardly ever listening to anything (occasionally classical piano if I'm hitting writer's block), but when you have headphones on, it keeps people from stopping in and interrupting while you're in the zone.

As far as the process, it really varies based on the story.

On day-turn, tight-deadline stories, I often pick my best bites and weave a story through those.

When we're looking at in-depth pieces I typically do a rough outline. If I have any bites or lines that I know I want I'll plug them in while I'm working to build the rest of the script.

Everything is typed but I usually have a ‘Draft 1,’ ‘Draft 2’ and several other versions of the story that I'm working through until I get the ‘aha’ moment of flow for the story.

Don't be afraid to write, rewrite and rewrite again.

BUTERA: What's the best writing advice you ever received?

LAMBERT: A few years ago I lost the Regional Emmy in the Writer category (to the amazing Jay Korff). My 4-year-old (at the time) said to me “Mommy, it’s OK to lose, you just need to try harder next time.” He’s right. It’s simple advice but always keep studying, keep learning, keep growing.

At some point you pick up writing advice from every writer you admire without even knowing it.

Watch stories from the reporters you admire; every time I watch a Boyd Huppert, John Sharify or Kathleen Cairns story I get inspired. One of the best resources is to watch the Murrow-winning stories from across the country. 

BUTERA: What's the best writing advice you would give?

LAMBERT: Get out of the way.

Let the characters drive the story, allow the viewer to feel connected to the subject.

The best writing serves the viewer, not the writer. 

Always look for a way to surprise and reward the viewer and don't overlook the moments of silence.

At the end of every interview we always ask, “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” So here’s one more thing I’d like to add:

One of the most important things to remember is that a writer is only as good as the photography.

The reporter and photojournalist are working together. It’s a true team and needs to be treated as such. Listen to your photographer and respect their opinion, bounce ideas off each other, story block together, show them drafts along the way, allow them freedom in the editing process.

I’m lucky to work with some of the best photojournalists in the country and I don’t take that for granted.

Joy Lambert (@JoyLambert) anchors and reports for WBFF in Baltimore, MD. Her work has earned her both Regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and Regional Emmy Awards.

Jeff Butera (@WriteLikeUTalk) anchors the evening news for WZVN-TV (ABC) in Fort Myers, FL. He’s also the author of “Write Like You Talk: A Guide To Broadcast News Writing,” which is available for purchase at


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