Three formulas for creating compelling stories

It sounds old-school, but to earn media attention, get to know the media.

It sounds old-school, but to earn media attention, get to know the media.

Because I have a 35-year history in community journalism, I’m often asked by my newer acquaintances and associates – including folks from business and other non-profits – about the secret to “telling your story” and getting noticed by the media.

Most often I urge them to get to know their audience, and in the case of gaining the attention of journalists, to get to know the writers and editors who make decisions about what is covered on TV and radio and in newspapers – and what is not. There’s no substitute for a personal connection with a journalist.

The other important thing to do is to frame your story so that it sounds interesting, compelling. Really, that’s the key challenge – to stand out in the daily clutter of information that bombards us all.

To that end, there’s no sure-fire formula on how to successfully engage an audience and gain favorable press, but here are three tried-and-true story themes that have been enormously successful for others. They are based on suggestions in a book titled “Made to Stick,” which is about why some ideas survive and others die. I highly recommend it.

In each of these cases, remember to not focus on how great your company or non-profit is; instead, focus on how great your clients, employees, donors, and volunteers are.

You will be inspiring and entertaining your audience – and possibly even catching the eye of major media — if your “story” fits in one of these categories:

1) David vs. Goliath Stories. These are stories about overcoming great odds, similar to the Bible story about tiny David using a slingshot to defeat the enormous warrior Goliath. Stories about ordinary people who have overcome obstacles to do great things serve to inspire people. These stories make us think we, too, can be the hero.

2) Good Samaritan Stories. These are stories about people who develop a relationship that bridges the gap – racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, or otherwise. Doing so is a challenge for all of us who like to “play it safe,” so to read about someone who has made the extra effort to connect with others … well, that’s a great motivator.

3) MacGyver Stories. Named for the resourceful TV action-adventure hero who could solve complex problems with everyday materials – such as duct tape or a Swiss Army knife – these stories are about people who have made mental breakthroughs. In other words, they created a solution without the benefit of great resources. These stories suggest that anything is possible.

If you have a story to tell in one of these three categories, you are already interesting and compelling and simply need the right vehicle to get the message to a larger audience.

Here is a bonus tip for finding and framing stories that are sure to connect with the public and the media. It’s offered with tongue in cheek, because it doesn’t work for everyone. You can never have enough …

4) Dog Stories. Seriously, when in doubt, find a cute dog story that somehow connects with your company, your non-profit, your employees, your customers. It’s something of a mystery why stories about dogs acting like humans – a dog warning her sleeping master to get out of a burning house, for example – are so appealing. Some experts think it’s because a dog’s ability to show a range of emotions – love, anxiety, curiosity – tricks us into thinking they possess the full range of human feelings and abilities. In any case, if you can find a story about how you are connected to the canine world in an endearing and meaningful way … well, tell the world as fast as you can!

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