Telling stories has been a part of the human tradition since time immemorial. And it’s one of our primary modes of communication. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at an uptown cocktail party or sitting around the campfire in the middle of the woods: you’ll find that pretty soon people start swapping stories. It’s human nature.
In fact, you might be surprised by just how much of our communication is really telling stories. Advertisements tell (brief) stories to their clients. Families tell stories to each other. And crucially, newspapers tell stories to their readers. That’s where you come in.
As an entrepreneur looking for publicity for your business, getting into a newspaper or onto a high-profile site can have huge financial rewards. But journalists need stories. To get yourself there, you’re going to need to learn how to tell one.
What is a story?
That may seem like a simple question, but it’s worth considering. What are the elements that make up a story? Most stories have at least one character and consist of a series of events that the characters go through before arriving at some kind of conclusion. In entertaining stories, there’s virtually always some source of tension or conflict: a challenge that the character must overcome.
You can break down virtually any good story into these basic components:
Stories without characters are inhuman. Stories without conflict are boring. Stories without resolution are frustrating. So to tell a good story, you generally need these three elements. And even the most complex stories can be broken down in this way. Consider Moby Dick: Ishmael (the main character) goes to sea to battle with a whale (conflict) that ultimately destroys the boat and his shipmates, leaving him to be rescued by a nearby ship (resolution).
Finding your story
Finding the right storyline for your business isn’t easy at first. But there are almost certainly good stories to be told about your company.
The characters in your story are most likely you and your employees. Those are the people you can offer a journalist access too, after all, and they’re the people who comprise the business you’re trying to publicize. So the story is about you guys—what interesting things have happened to you? What struggles have you gone through?
Keep in mind that this is still business reporting. Nobody needs to have been dragged into the depths of the sea by a homicidal whale to get your company into the paper. But companies face conflicts and go through trials, just as the characters in novels do. What you need to do is find a human story that you can offer to reporters that’ll have readers rooting for you.
The easiest version of this for startups is the “early struggles” story. You’ve read a dozen versions of this story before. Think of Jobs and Wozniak in the garage. You’re young and poor, but you’ve got dreams and the story is about how you overcome obstacles to get your foot in the door. Almost every startup has its own version of this story, because very few startups experience smooth sailing in the early days. But if you are going to tell it, be aware that because it’s such a common angle, it’s not always the most interesting take to pitch. Still, if you’ve got a good startup origin story, that’s one direction you can go.
Consider other kinds of conflict too. For example, has your team overcome any difficult internal strife or conflict? Obviously you don’t want a story in the paper that makes you sound like bickering children, but if framed the right way, a story about how you overcame some internal problem through honest communication (for example) can be humanizing and cause people to like you. That’s a good thing.
There are lots of potential sources of conflict in business stories: your company versus competitors. Your company versus economic downturn. You the founder versus the problem that led you to create your company in the first place. Et cetera.
Do keep in mind that the resolution is an important part of the story, though. Journalists are happy to write about an ongoing conflict, but from your perspective it’s generally going to be better if you can depict your company as having successfully overcome some kind of obstacle. So if you’re in the middle of a rough patch, now might not be the best time to seek coverage.
What makes you unique?
One of the best ways to find the right angle for your company is to spend some time thinking about what makes your company unique. What sets you apart from the herd? If you don’t want to be telling the same stories as everyone else, you need to know what you bring to the table that’s different.
An example may be helpful here. Consider Apple in the early iMac era, when Jobs had just rejoined and the company was trying to regain its former glory. There were lots of other computer companies out there. What made Apple unique? Visual design. Nobody else had a computer on the market that was as aesthetically pleasing as those early iMacs. That differentiation point is a good place to find stories. How did Apple come up with the unique iMac design? Why did Apple choose to go against industry conventions and create a curvy, colorful computer? Those are questions every journalist wanted an answer to, and Apple could use those as the entry points to tell a story about their company that’s far more interesting and unique than the typical “we had a tough time until we didn’t” business story.
The easy way out
Can’t think of a good story? Lucky for you, there is one other way to a business reporter’s heart: sexy numbers. Yes, in the absence of human drama, numbers are probably your next best bet.
For this approach to work, your numbers have to be eye-catching. But it you’re a startup that’s gained some traction, they probably are. At the very least, you should have some great growth numbers to work with. Absent those, a big fundraising round can catch a reporter’s eye, too.
When considering pitching this kind of story, remember that it needs a clickbait headline. “Local company enjoys modest growth” is a boring story that nobody—including the journalist you’re pitching to—is going to click. But you will turn heads if you can give them something like this: “Here’s how local company grew 10x in two years.”
Final word of warning
Whichever option you go with, remember that journalists are always looking for stories, and there are probably some stories about your company that you don’t want told, too. In pitching your story, be careful that you don’t give the journalist a whiff of something else. Among other things, that means you definitely need to avoid being misleading. If you’ve gone through a good conflict but you fudge a resolution in the story that hasn’t really happened yet, the journalist is likely to pick up on it and write a story that’s just about how your company’s caught up in some struggles. Not exactly the positive PR move you were hoping for.
So be careful, but do find your unique points and tell your story. It’s a fine line between appearing human and exposing too many flaws, I know, but if you can walk that line you’ll find you’ve got journalists who are genuinely interested in writing up the stories you’re trying to place.