How to pitch a story

Every Monday at 10.30am we run a meeting to gather ideas for stories we should be telling via EMBL’s channels. You are welcome to come along to these story meetings (usually held in room B18 in the ATC – accessible via video conference if you’re not in Heidelberg) and to pitch your own ideas. Please be prepared to explain:

  • Key message
  • Audience
  • Hook

Let’s go into each of these in some more detail.

Key message

The key message is the one thing that a reader should take away from your story. It should be clearly expressed in the pitch.

Identifying a key message is a skill, but simply thinking about it up front and being aware that you need a key message is the first thing to do!

Start with the facts. What happened? Who was involved? What has changed? Avoid anything that introduces doubt (keywords such as “might”, “could” and “should” can flag these doubts). Be brutal in paring down to the facts. Don’t be tempted to pump up the bare facts. Not all stories change the world, and that’s as it should be.

Call to action. Are you expecting your audience to do something, such as sign up for an event? If so, outline the call to action in the key message part of your pitch.

Dig deeper. Very often we get pitches in the story meetings that include key messages such as, “I just had a paper published in…” or “[celebrity X] visited EMBL yesterday”. While the publication or the visit can itself in theory be the key message, try to dig deeper to find something more compelling or singular. For instance, if we consider the publication: is the paper the culmination of many different bits of research, or does it make a link between two things that had previously been seen as quite separate? What fields does the research advance? What is the impact (or potential impact) of this? What does this research mean personally to those who conducted it?

Build wonder. We are lucky to deal with amazing science stories from across EMBL, but these can often feel esoteric or incredibly specific. In these cases, what aspects of the story can we bring out that can help build a sense of wonder?

Build tension. What questions does the research raise? Can we build suspense or anticipation in any of these?

Link the story to the bigger picture. One aspect that is very often overlooked by those making pitches is how stories contribute to, or advance, EMBL’s organisational goals. Sometimes we’re lucky to find stories that address bigger goals, such as those of an entire field, or societal challenges such as climate change. Can you link the story to a bigger picture of any sort?

Audience

Most people won’t care about your story. That’s a brutal truth, but worth holding in mind when making your pitch. It’ll give you focus and help you tease out a better story.

Good content is written with a particular audience segment in mind. Although a story might be interesting to ‘everyone’, we need to highlight different aspects of the story for different audience segments. So if you could only tell your story to one audience segment, which one would you chose and what impact would you wish to have on them? If you could tell another segment the story, who would that be? Would you need to adjust the message, tone or content for them? In what way? Try to limit yourself to two audience segments.

We often refer to the following segments in our story meetings:

  • EMBL people
  • Scientists
  • Students and educators
  • General public

These categories are generally too broad, however, and as discussions about a story progress we often end up describing stories for segments such as:

  • Job seekers looking for opportunities in computing
  • EMBL staff at the Grenoble site
  • High school students interested in biology or chemistry

I find that stories written for more specific segments such as this tend to have a lot more focus. See if you can hone down your target audience.

Hook

The ‘hook’ is something that makes the story relevant in time or which relates them to other stories. Stories will often have several hooks. Hooks help those of us who are planning the production of the story to schedule its release and get the most exposure for it.

Internal hooks. There are usually hooks within a story itself around or around the process of how the story unfolds. For instance, a researcher giving a talk at a big conference about a significant piece of research can be a hook (although the research would likely be the key message). A publication in a journal can be a hook. The signature of an agreement can be a hook.

External hooks. We often overlook the hooks beyond the story, but these can be extremely powerful because they can be things that certain audience segments are really interested in. For instance, if you are trying to reach PhD candidates, are there application deadlines coming up, or any particularly relevant events coming up? Another example of an external hook is a development in a larger news story such as breakthroughs in, say, human health, the environment or artificial intelligence.

Author: Dan Noyes

I joined EMBL in February 2016, where I am now the Joint Head of the Strategy and Communications team. I'm interested in communications strategy development and solving the problems of how communications works in practice in large organisations.

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