Newsrooms in films or TV shows are always full of drama about a controversial lead story, the investigation, scandal or expose. But often what isn’t shown is much more important — and can be borrowed by anyone trying to pitch an idea more effectively, either publicly or inside a company.
Storytelling is interwoven into everything you do as a journalist. More than two decades spent in some of the industry’s most demanding and creative environments has demonstrated to me how the principles we’re taught are just as applicable for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs who want to construct compelling narratives and persuade others to back their “crazy” idea.
You want to get your story remembered because it feels relevant.
The secret is to strip these journalistic skills back to their most basic. Too much storytelling — particularly some workshops I’ve encountered — is made unnecessarily complicated. This is especially true when it comes to pitching to internal audiences, when you want to get your story read by the right people, absorbed in an instant and — this is the crucial bit — remembered because it feels relevant.
It’s something that Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos has embedded into the company’s culture. Every attendee at every meeting has to construct a brief pitch instead of meandering for ages with a PowerPoint presentation, to encourage better decision-making.
Want to hear more from Grant Feller on corporate storytelling? Sifted is hosting a meetup in London on March 26 where Feller will share tips and techniques.
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That’s why adopting a newsroom strategy is so effective. Behind the scenes of a dramatic expose article are dozens of individuals battling each other for space, bigger bylines, more kudos. Every minute of every day. It’s brutal but highly creative. It has to be. A typical newspaper will have about 200 stories in it and, during a 12-hour day, they are thought of, honed, pitched, written, deleted, re-pitched, rewritten and finally printed. Hopefully.
And that pitching process is continuous — you pitch to teams, editors, writers and picture editors. It’s not simply about pitching but persuasion and here are three key techniques I learned over the years of doing this.
Treat everything as if it was a headline.
This is the key creative skill in journalism — if you can’t tell your story in seven words (10 at a push) then it isn’t a story. And I mean words that are meaningful, have clarity and entice you in. A better headline doesn’t just help to make a better story, it also speeds up your writing and provides a much-needed structure for a pitch.
Remember, in the corporate world, dozens of decisions are being made each day, sometimes instantaneously based upon a gut instinct about how someone comes across or what they say. The perfect headline induces a positive gut instinct. It does in newsrooms, it definitely will in a corporate pitching process.
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Take some time over this. Believe me, it takes ages to come up with the right headline. Be brutal. Your first idea is good, your second will be worse but the third will really hit the spot.
Start with the punchline.
Every news story is essentially built with this formula: tell the reader what you’re going to say (headline), say it (first paragraph) and then tell them what you’ve just said (the rest of it).
Too many tech presentations build up to a crescendo as if all the right pieces need to be in place before you can deliver the key insight or present your most important point. By that time, people will have given up. More importantly, they’re likely to forget what you’ve said because their cognitive functions automatically focus on the first bit, not the last. Don’t leave the best bit until the end, put it at the beginning and then explain why you’ve put it there.
Before you write a word, delete your ego.
Your presentation or pitch must never look like it’s about what you want. Put yourself in the shoes of the person or team who you’re trying to persuade — why do they care? Deep down, journalists are predictably selfish creatures but they write for an audience, not just themselves. They picture who the story is for, what that person cares about, what their biases, desires and emotions are. It’s the same in business — if you want your presentation to benefit your own ambitions, you first need to understand what’s driving your audience.
Then you need to figure out how to ensure those two different paths can converge within the pitch.
Grant Feller is managing director of GF Media, a narrative and storytelling consultancy for business.