The Story in the Haystack
I've been thinking about pitching lately. A lot.

If you're a journalist, pitching is just a fact of life. If you're working with a team, you're probably going to have to pitch your ideas to your coworkers and watch as those ideas get shot down.

And if you're a freelancer, like I am now, you're going to have to pitch to other outlets – other teams.

Ugh, I'm getting stressed out just thinking about it!

Not to get too cliched about things, but developing a great story idea can feel as impossible as finding a needle in a haystack.
Lovely haystack photo by Adrien Bruneau on Unsplash.
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At the moment, I'm on both sides of this equation. I'm on the hunt for story ideas to pitch to other outlets. And I'm currently accepting pitches for a podcast I'm producing.

But I'm just gonna be honest here. Most of those ideas need a lot of work.

And so it feels like the perfect time to try to answer this question that was sent in by a subscriber.

If you haven't taken the survey yet, now's the time! It's short and easy. I promise!
Imagine a reporter/producer comes to you, excited about an idea. And maybe it's got some potential. What sorts of questions are you going to ask that will help them hone in on a compelling story...or save them from chasing something that probably won't pay off?
Oh my goodness…this is not difficult to imagine. Because it's literally something I am doing RIGHT NOW!

And look, a lot of the questions I ask are really specific to the story. Or, they have to do with the point of view of the show. They're not the kind of things I can list in a newsletter.

But there are some questions you can ask about EVERY pitch, to make sure you've got something that has the potential to move forward.
Is this really a story? Or is this just something weird?

So many pitches come in that are some version of, "This person is doing this really unusual thing, and I want to do a story about it."

In order to make a narrative, you're gonna need to dig a little deeper…and see if you can find an interesting and unexpected sequence of events that allowed this "really unusual thing" to happen in the first place.

Imagine that you want to do a story about a woman who makes alien plush toys and gives them to kids at the local children's hospital.

Yeah, that's weird. Totally weird.

But the sequence of events that led her to this moment might be totally ordinary and uninteresting. Maybe aliens are the only kind of plush toy she knows how to make? Maybe she used to make unicorns and butterflies, but the kids all preferred the aliens?

I don't know about you, but I'm not terribly interested in those stories…

On the other hand, what if she has a vivid memory from when she was a child of being woken up in the middle of the night by a bright light? And she remembers that light lifting her into a spaceship where benevolent beings smiled at her and were kind to her? And when she woke up in her bed the next morning, she felt a sense of peace?

Now, maybe that memory was just a dream? (I don't want to debate the existence of extraterrestrial life in this newsletter!)

But maybe that dream made her want to bring a sense of peace to other children, and that's why makes alien plush toys for kids at the local children's hospital?

Now you have a story!
Who can you interview about this?

Okay, in the example above, the answer is pretty simple. You're gonna talk to the woman who makes the alien plush toys! (You do have access to her, right? Some indication that she'll agree to do an interview with you?)

You might be tempted to tell me that you'll also talk to three top hospital administrators, because that's what the PR person who told you about this woman wants you to do.

But that's not gonna help your cause.

Let's face it. Hospital administrators are often pretty boring interviews. (No offense to all the hospital administrators out there!)

But really, how are they going to add to this sequence of events in an interesting and meaningful way?

The same is (usually) true of politicians, government officials, and spokespeople of all sorts.

In narrative storytelling, we often skip past the "official" voices and look for the people who were directly affected by the story we're telling. So, instead of talking to an administrator, how about talking to the parent of one of the kids who received an alien plush toy?

And this is where the real work comes in. Not every parent of every kid who received an alien plush toy is going to have an interesting story to tell.

Most of them are going to be pretty dull.

By finding the woman who makes the alien plush toys, you have the start of a story. The first half. But in order for your pitch to be accepted, you're going to need to find the second half. The impact.

And that's often the hardest part of the story to find.
Who are your characters?

Okay, at first glance, this sounds a lot like the last question. But it's different in some really important ways.

I get a lot of pitches that start with a really clear sequence of events. This happened. Which led to this happening. And then you wouldn't f-ing believe it, but this happened. And that led to this really interesting moment that somehow relates to the world today.

So far, so good!

When that sequence of events is happening to a person, like the alien plush toy lady, you're all set. You already know who your main character is going to be.

But what if that sequence is happening to a group of people? A town? A company? A scientific advancement?

You might decide to treat that group (or town or company or scientific advancement) as the main character in your story. So the main "arc" of your story will revolve around what happened to that group as a whole.

But you still need characters. People who are part of that group (or town or company or scientific advancement) who experienced that sequence of events. People who were there and watched it all go down.

But again, you're not looking for just anyone. You need to find someone who has an interesting story to tell.

When talking through a pitch with a reporter, we'll sometimes try to imagine our "ideal" person.

Are they someone who believed one thing before the series of events and changed their mind?

Are they someone who was in a unique position to experience the series of events in an unexpected way?

Were they someone who's life was changed by the sequence of events and now they're trying to "pay it forward" by changing the lives of other people?

It's almost always easier to find someone who you know who you're looking for!

This is the real work of the pitch. Anyone can pitch me the sequence of events. It's finding the right person to tell that story that's going to make your pitch stand out.
How is this story different from every other story in the entire universe of stories?

This isn't just about asking how the story about the lady who makes plush toys for kids in the hospital is different from every other story about ladies who make plush toys for kids in the hospital.

I want to know how this story is different from every other story about someone who is doing a nice thing for other people.

We tend to get bogged down in the specifics. (But this lady is making ALIEN plush toys!) Instead of looking at the bigger picture.

Maybe this story tells us something interesting about people who've had alien encounters? Or about our own fascination with the unknown? Or how something that symbolizes terror for one group of people (aliens are scary!) becomes a symbol of hope for another group of people?

Whatever your story is really about, it's not only about a lady who makes plush toys for kids.
How does your story break the mold?

Again, this story seems pretty similar to the story you just asked yourself.

But again, there are some important differences.

We're looking for stories that are surprising. We just are! A story where the outcome is predictable just isn't going to keep people listening.

Here's a real life example. For the first season of The Long Game, I wanted to do an interview episode with an athlete who was also an environmental activist.

I wanted to find someone who was doing something more than just writing a check or giving a speech. Those things are important, but they don't really make for interesting stories.

My first google search led me to a bunch of athletes in so-called "adventure" sports. Trail runners, sailors, ice climbers, skiers and snowboarders.

Now, these people are all doing good work, and that's great. But their stories are almost all the same.

While doing their sport, they witnessed changes to the environment. And they want to keep doing their sport, and they want their children to be able to do their sport too. So they're campaigning for some sort of reform.

Noble. Important.

But not very unusual.

Beyond that, almost all of these athletes were white. And many of them were participating in sports that required a significant investment.

In other words, they were coming at this issue from a place of privilege.

But I knew from my research that the people most affected by threats to the environment are often poor. They're disproportionately Black and brown.

As soon as I realized that, I knew where I had to look to find my story.

And that's how I found Ovie Mughelli – former NFL player, son of Nigerian immigrants, who grew up watching the cartoon Captain Planet, because it was the only cartoon that featured a superhero who looked like him. And now he works in Black and brown communities, teaching kids how to protect the environment and inspiring them to be their own environmental superheros.

That's what you're looking for. The story that breaks the mold. The story that goes in an unexpected direction. The story that's going to offer surprises.
What does this outlet want/need?

You might have found a great story. But is it the right story for the outlet or podcast that you're pitching?

Full disclosure here...this might be an impossible question for you to actually answer.

As an editor, I'm weighing so many things. How many other stories do I have from that region? Have I already accepted another story that hits on the same themes? Do I need more happy stories? More sad stories?

You can't possibly know everything the editor is looking for. But there are certainly things that you can check, by looking through the outlet's feed.

  • Have they done a similar story recently? If so…focus on what makes your pitch different.

  • Do they have a particular point of view? If you want to pitch 99 Percent Invisible, a show about design, your story probably should not be about how design is stupid and unimportant.

  • Does your story bring something new to an idea/issue that's already on the minds of the listeners of this podcast? Hint: It should!
But the most important thing at this point is to stay FLEXIBLE. There are 1000 different ways your story could go. Pick one.

But also be open to the idea that the story, as pitched, isn't exactly what the outlet needs. If the editor comes back to you with feedback, be ready to think it through and, potentially, approach the story in a different way.
Pitch me! No, for real. Find out all the details on AIR. Or, if you're not an AIR member, reply to this email and I'll send you the deets.

Listen! To Open + Shut, a new podcast from Narrative Beat subscriber Phoebe Petrovic. Full disclosure, I was the story editor on this one, and I couldn't be more proud.

Apply! Want to work with Phoebe? The deadline is approaching fast for this reporting fellowship at Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio.

Don't forget! The Narrative Beat community is now up and running. Things are still a little quiet in the Slack channel. So, for the next little while, all community members will be invited to a monthly free group coaching session with me! Sign up here. Our first group chat will be this coming Tuesday, May 10 from 1-2pm Eastern. I hope to see you there!