We have too many choices:
- Endless stories to read in a newspaper spread out in front of me at the breakfast table.
- Countless TV news channels and streaming apps.
- A website with dozens, if not hundreds, of links for stories to click.
- An infinite stream of TikTok videos where I decide in milliseconds whether to stay or swipe up.
I get asked a lot, “What are the most important things that draw you into a story?” Five factors stand out to me.
Number 1: An immediately useful takeaway
Remember the reader/viewer is selfish. What’s in it for them? Consider me as the typical reader or viewer. I’m selfish. What’s in this story that makes my life better? Consider you as the reader/viewer. You’re selfish, too. Everything you read has to add value to you.
Is this going to make me smarter the next time I am talking to somebody I need to impress? Is this going to tell me how to do something that I need to know and that I actually need to take action on?
Remember that the “reader” in this case certainly includes the end user, but it also includes reporters, editors and producers who are reviewing pitches sent to them. The same question applies: how does it immediately help them either do something specific or sound smarter?
Here are a couple headlines that selfishly I would care about. Yours might be different!
- Here’s one setting you need to fix on your iPhone right now to prevent cyberhackers.
- New Jersey’s governor is planning this tax hike. Here’s how you can get around it.
- This favorite kids’ food item is being canceled due to dangerous ingredients.
Number 2: Tension or drama
Plenty of headlines (and certainly TV story intro setups) give away the whole story right away, so readers and viewers (aka you and I) don’t need to keep listening. Let’s make that introduction statement more dramatic or create a tension point that needs to be resolved (like this second parentheses that never comes
Number 3: Give me examples from the news
My favorite MIT professor, Patrick Winston, taught us you can’t learn something until you already almost know it.
When telling a story, you’re trying to teach me something new. The only way I am going to grasp it is if I already almost know it. Let’s connect that bridge by using very recent historical examples. This way I can hear the new information from the reporter and build it from something I’ve recently heard about.
End users (the ultimate consumers/readers/viewers) of any specific news outlet have spent a long time investing and paying attention to what that outlet presents. Think about the people who spend all day watching CNBC, compared to the people who spend all day watching ESPN, compared to the people who spend all day on TikTok or the ones who read The New Yorker. They have a totally different set of built-up knowledge of what stories they know about and care about. Tie it back to that. Typically, the employees of these companies are also stuck in their own echo chamber, endlessly talking about stories from their news flow that perhaps nobody else in the real world is focused on.
What am I trying to get at? Especially when it comes to pitching, tie the pitches back to what the channel is already focused on. Every channel cares about something very different, so the pitch better be customized to their specific echo chamber. Because that’s what will grab the employee’s attention and certainly the end viewers’ attention as well. Tie it back to news items they have already been hearing about.
Number 4: $$$$
Specific dollar amounts always draw me in. Whether or not I agree with those actual numbers, I will be curious how they got that number. It makes me want to pay more attention. Specific numbers seem more scientific and useful and are better than general large, rounded numbers, which seem a bit made up.
Number 5: Make me disagree
Give me something to disagree with. Force me to have an emotional response so I want to pay attention / click / listen more. I often find when stories are a little too perfect, there is nothing for me to fight back against, so I may pay LESS attention than I otherwise might. It becomes more of a textbook read or a professor’s lecture, where a reporter is simply telling me everything I need to know. And what happens? I get bored. I tune out, because it seems like a chore rather than an engaging conversation. We’ve seen this happen a lot, where reporters “empty their notebook” to tell us everything they know, and they are so focused on being perfectly buttoned up, it leaves little room for viewer engagement and participation
But when there is something I don’t agree with, my emotions go up, and my critical thinking skills come into play. It makes me engage more with the story, think about it more, and perhaps share it more.