Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Listen for these moments to find client content that you can pitch

You can’t count on your client or your client’s customer to give you the storytelling fodder needed to catch a news reporter’s interest.

So you need to listen.

And ask questions, but at the right moments.

The following moments are storytelling gold mines. Listen for:

  • surprise
  • emotion
  • lesson learned
  • obstacle overcome
  • counter-intuitive decision
  • point where no one knew what would happen next

These are the places in a conversation where it pays to tune in extra carefully and ask “micro-questions.” By that I mean highly detailed questions that you normally wouldn’t pose elsewhere in the conversation.

Sample micro-questions:

  1. What color was the cap?
  2. Do you remember his exact words?
  3. What was the first thing that he did next?
  4. It sounds like that upset you. Why did it hit a nerve? Did it remind you of something? What?
  5. What else was happening at the time? Who was doing that? Why?
  6. What do you mean by “tough”? What problems were you having? Why was that such a problem?
  7. What were you doing in the moment when you changed your mind?
  8. What do you think would have happened if you’d done it the other way?
  9. What made you think it could work? Why didn’t you quit? What were others saying?
  10. Hindsight’s 20-20. Is there something you’d do differently if starting from scratch today?

Here’s the rub. Most PR people I know will hear the right moments and instinctually fall silent. Reporters, on the other hand, hear those same moments and ask more questions. My personal impression is that most of the PR people I know well are talented at putting people at ease. One way they do this, I believe, is to give people plenty of personal and emotional space when the conversation veers toward the possibility of pain or embarrassment. This is nice, kind, gentle, thoughtful, etc. I appreciate this in them.

But I also believe that these innately diplomatic people would also be good at asking tough questions gently. If they instead fall silent, no story will appear.

As a journalist, I learned this from experience. I was embarrassed many times when I was new because I often had to call sources back to ask for extra detail after I’d returned to the office. In time, I learned that the detail I needed always seemed to center around one of these turning points.

Storytelling is different from exposition (explaining) in that it involves personal transformation. Think of the last novel you read or movie you saw. A character for whom you felt sympathy overcame obstacles in pursuit of something he wanted, and learned something along the way.

This isn’t artifice. It’s really how human beings live their lives.

To make a technology story palatable to a mainstream audience, you may need to locate characters that the audience can care about and reveal some of the trials and errors they encountered along their road to success. Here’s an example of a software story that became a human interest story. It ran in Monday’s San Francisco Chronicle. When you read it, see if you can find any of the above “moments.”

Stories create community when they’re about real people we can care about and learn from. So if you find yourself feeling nosy and inappropriate, remember that if you’re nosy in the right way, you can create bridges among members of the human family who previously didn’t realize how much they had in common. Plus, your client’s name and contribution will get some good digital ink.