Four pillars of story pitches that make news

Graphic with the words "What is your story?"

Story generation is the engine that makes media relations programs run. When you don’t have news—which for most enterprises is most of the time—you have to develop compelling story pitches to earn the attention of writers, editors and producers.

This requires more than a bit of brainstorming. Story ideas with legs are meaty enough for a journalist to explore and broadly appealing enough so that they don’t smack of pure self-interest. The best stand on four pillars:  three-dimensional relevance; clarity and focus; a hook, line and sinker; and a cast of characters.

1. Relevance

Achieving relevance is like dressing for unpredictable weather: you need layers. The first layer is relevance to your ultimate audience. What’s eating up most of their brain space? What motivates them? Will this story give them useful insights?

The second is the outlets you want to pitch. If you’ve developed a trade story and you want to be in trade outlets, you’re already half dressed. If you’re trying to reach people through general news media, you need a different idea or a bigger picture take. Broadcast and podcast media also require specialized story elements.

The third layer is relevance to the journalists you’re pitching. Ideally your story can be told from multiple angles. Even trade reporters have particular interests, and the most effective story pitches are tailored to journalists’ coverage areas rather than blasted out indiscriminately.

2. Clarity and focus

For a quick read on whether the idea will be resonate with, or even make sense to, people outside your enterprise, try the cocktail party test. Would you tell this story to someone you just met—or even someone you know—at a social gathering? How about a professional gathering? If not, the story is too complicated and needs to be distilled to its essence, or it’s inside baseball that isn’t going to play for a crowd.

Focus is essential to achieving this level of approachability. Story ideas that audiences find hard to follow often are trying to pack too many nuances and related but nonessential threads into the pitch.

3. A hook, line and sinker

If you were speaking about the idea at a conference, how likely is it that people would be surreptitiously checking their phones and tuning you out? If your honest assessment (not taking into account your enormous personal charisma, of course) is “pretty likely,” the story needs an attention-grabbling hook and compelling plot points, anchored by a meaningful theme.

Key questions to consider are: Do you have a dramatic result or surprising analysis that will grab attention? How broadly can you extend the topic’s significance? Can you share enough details to contribute to a substantive story? Why is this topic important right now? Newsworthiness can be tricky. For true believers working to solve social and environmental problems or create a model for others to follow, every step forward is important and worthy of coverage. But that’s not necessarily how the wider world will see it, and ultimately news is what the media believes it is.

4. A cast of characters

Those of us with a fondness for abstract analysis have to face facts: most people would rather eat bugs than endure a story without characters. The best story pitches are built on people: compelling sources (extra credit if they can speak from a personal story), examples involving people the audience will relate to, and a description of who will benefit.

There’s no guarantee any story pitch will result in coverage, but ideas that hit all these marks have the best possible chance of coming to life.

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