Earlier this week, I was talking with a reporter who was struggling with pitching. She'd find a topic she was interested in. Do a bunch of research. Maybe even conduct an interview or two.
But when it came time to actually pitch her idea for a story, she'd find herself stuck. Asking, "Why me? Why am I the person to tell this story?"
Look…that's a good question to ask. You should definitely have a sense of why YOU want to tell this story.
But this reporter was allowing that question to trip her up. Paralyze her. She had started to believe that she needed to find the perfect story. Something that she – and only she – could possibly tell.
And I get it.
The only story I've ever worked on that truly went viral was written by Shirley Wang, the daughter of a Chinese cat litter scientist who met NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley in a bar. The two men became close friends, and then Shirley's dad died of cancer. Her story
was personal and beautiful and made me cry buckets every time I heard it.
And it absolutely blew up the internet for one weekend in December of 2018.
But you don't need a personal connection and access to a larger-than-life celebrity to make a good story.
So, I thought I might spend this newsletter talking about some slightly more accessible ways to find a story to tell.
Meet someone interesting.
While at my husband's college reunion, I found myself chatting with a lovely woman who told me about her son's experience as a gymnast. Her story wasn't all that unusual. In fact, it was exactly the kind of thing parents and youth athletes face all the time. But she spoke about it so openly, with such insight and emotion, I knew it would make a great story.
So I asked if she'd be willing to share it on the radio. She said yes and handed me her business card. Easy, peasy!
Find a local story that hasn't gone national yet.
If I had more time to pitch stories, I would just make a habit of reading the local newspaper from the bonkers little town I grew up in.
Seriously…so many weird things happen there, I could write a book.
You know, if I had any idea how to write a book.
My point is, there are a lot of things that happen in Joshua Tree, California that never make the national news. Things that are weird and unexpected, but that somehow relate to national trends.
I should write about them. But I don't have time.
Don't be like me.
Maybe it's the town you grew up in? Maybe it's the neighborhood you live in now? Either way, pay attention to what's happening on the local level. Chances are, something will pop up that will resonate with a larger audience.
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Have a beat...or two.
You might have noticed that many of my examples have to do with sports.
That's not because I'm a sports fan. In fact, other than attending the occasional Red Sox game, I couldn't care less about sports.
But most of my story ideas relate to sports in some way.
That's because I spent many years working on a sports show. I know what stories are outdated. What stories are new. What angles are old. And what angles feel fresh.
Having a beat is a very good thing.
And look, you don't have to get too precious about it. I recently talked to someone who told me that her beats were: travel, adventure, culture and science.
So it's not like you have to pick one very narrow thing. Pick a few things. Things that you actually like and are interested in. Follow them.
That way, you'll recognize a story worth telling when you see it.
Pay attention to your friends' social media posts.
If your friend is posting about how much she hates a certain ex-president, that's probably not news.
But if she's posting about her friend, G, who went swimming at the local pool and was subjected to police interrogation because she talked over a white woman's lane…that's a story the world needs to hear.
And the fact that your friend is friends with this woman means that you have someone to vouch for you when you make the interview request.
I do not badger people. I do not ask them again and again for an interview. It is not their job to speak to me. It's their job to live their lives.
That said, I will try to make a good argument as to why I'm the right person to help someone tell their story. And if that means asking a friend to make an introduction, so be it.
Okay, I'm not talking about pitching an interview with the person who wrote the latest best-seller. Any outlet that's interested in that subject probably already has it covered.
But maybe you loved a self-published memoir nobody else has ever heard of, and you think it would make a great story?
Or maybe you remember reading a book a long time ago, and you can't get it out of your mind. The book is still on your shelf, and nobody's made an audio story about it yet?
Or maybe a book you're reading makes a passing reference to a fascinating but long-forgotten moment in history that still has relevance today?
These aren't hypothetical examples. ALL of these things actually happened while I was working at Only A Game.
So, yeah, read books.
One caveat: Reading 7 out of the 8 Bridgerton novels while on vacation probably isn't going to result in any story ideas.
But…it will be fun. So, there's that.
| |Fall down a rabbit hole.
Have you ever been reading something on the internet and found yourself saying, "Wait..what?"
And so then you do a bunch more research that leads to a bunch more research.
And before you know it you've spent 4 hours of your life reading about the airspeed velocity of an unladen sparrow
? Monty Python quips aside, it might be time to start thinking about a story.
Jessica Abel has this thing she says – adapted from something Ira Glass said to her. "Pay attention to your attention
If something grabs you. Intrigues you. Takes hold in your brain and doesn't let go. Chances are, other people are going to find that thing interesting, too.
So follow it. See where it leads. It might take a bit of digging. It might take YEARS of digging. But eventually you're gonna find a great story.
One more thing...
I want to go back to that chat I had with a reporter earlier this week.
Much of the conversation centered around a story tip she got from her cousin.
It was about an indigenous man who was finally receiving respect and attention for his traditional knowledge, after decades of that knowledge being discounted by the larger, mostly white community.
The man was proud of this development. He was happy to share his story with the world. He was an engaging speaker with a great story. And the topic was little-known … and also universally relatable.
In other words, this reporter had everything she needed to craft a stellar pitch.
But the reporter worried that she, a white woman, wasn't the right person to tell this story. Was it appropriate for her to get paid to do this work?
And look, I get it. We'd all like this world to be a more fair and equitable place.
But the truth is, by using her talents to share this man's story, the reporter could help dispel stereotypes. She could put a spotlight on this man's long-ignored talents. Her story might even help him find funding for his projects.
Her intentions were good. Her approach was respectful. She had considered the potential ramifications of the story, and all of them were positive.
And we all deserve to get paid for our labor.
I really appreciate that this reporter was taking the time to consider the ethics of her story. We should all be doing that…with every story we produce.
But don't allow "ethics" to become just another word for "fear of failure."
So many of us worry that we're not right for a particular story. We're not talented enough. We don't have the right skills. Or the right background.
We don't have the right connection. The right geography.
We're too old. We're too young. Someone else might do a better job.
But how many of those objections are really just about our own fear of failure?
And what if we were to ignore those fears and instead focus on our talents? Our intention? Our hearts?
This reporter had found a story that NEEDS to be told. And I hope I've convinced her to try to tell it!
| |Just two little announcements this week.
First…the Narrative Beat
community is up and running. In fact, this very newsletter edition was inspired by a conversation I had with a member of that community! So, if you'd like to join us for a monthly chat, where we discuss whatever storytelling struggles are on your mind, follow this link
to check out the deets.
Also…it's time for our next workshop, yes? I've been asked to gear the next one towards print writers/reporters who are making the switch to audio. If that describes your career path, please respond to this email and let me know – what do you struggle with? What's the hardest part of transitioning from the written word to the spoken word?
And, as always, please share this newsletter with anyone you think might enjoy it.