We are looking for stories about people pushing the limits of software across industries. Every person out there has a different areas of focus; being a magazine, ours is storytelling. We trade in stories. We’re hoping to hear yours, because want to learn, and in the process help everyone who reads our articles learn as well. We want to facilitate the exchange of stories by all sorts of people building things with software. We want to hear about whatever you’re working on. We’re curious.
But we also know it’s hard to tell a good story on the spot. That’s what makes elevator pitches hard. It’s what makes blogging so difficult to do daily. It’s what makes it hard to ask someone out on a date. You want something—a story in the press, a good blog post, money, a person’s phone number—and now you need a story about why you should have it. Right?
Wrong. This understanding of a "good pitch" is logical and common, but it doesn’t produce good results. Here’s why.
The problem with thinking about pitching logically is that you end up focusing on the content. This is perhaps why so many email pitches end up being so long—you’re trying to include all the relevant information that might play into the recipient response.
Instead, you should be focused on how this pitch reflects on yourself and your motivations. When people listen to you tell your story, they are not just absorbing content, but also to the way you tell it. Consciously or unconsciously, they are looking at the way you tell your story for signals about what you want.
At Fast Company, and particularly here at Co.Labs, the best technology stories serve as useful advice for the next group of people embarking on a challenge that is similar (in some way) to yours. So when we look at the motivation behind a pitch, we’re hoping it’s to see enthusiasm for helping other people in the community think better. We’re looking for people who want others to build on their work or avoid the same mistakes. People who are proud of what they created because of how cleverly they dodged obstacles. People who aren’t afraid to get into technical details about why something confounded them, and how they figured it out. It’s very difficult to feign this sort of enthusiasm.
So maybe you have the enthusiasm and the will, but you don’t know what story you can tell that will help the community. Indeed, the hardest part of our jobs as editors is helping the smart people we cover to discover the story they’re trying to tell our readers.
To help with that, I’ll outline what we think are some critical ingredients in a good story—and what it should teach you about the art of vetting your own blog posts and pitches. I’ve been teaching a class about content strategy at General Assembly here in New York, and I’ve met a lot of people trying to figure out how to situate their own blogs. It’s hard to write an interesting blog, because storytelling at forced intervals is difficult. What makes storytelling easier is a more complete third-person understanding of your own story, and the source of your appeal to other people.
If someone asked you what your "story" was, you might answer with something that sounds like your resume or CV put into complete sentences. This is not your story.
The ingredients of your story are urges and frustrations, mistakes and genius moments, turning-point conversations, breaking points, inspiration, audacity and skill—as interpreted by you. All these sundry facets are united by some common pattern of thinking or behavior—unique responses to the challenges that pop up. That’s you-ness. Your story is created by the route you choose when guiding other people through this information about yourself, what you choose to share and choose not to share, and what you think about your own experience.
For us, interesting stories are about trying something new; solving a problem; overcoming a common obstacle; debunking a misconception. At the end of a good story, there should be a pot of gold—a small new way of thinking, a new algorithm for people to drop into their worldview. Something you learned, which you are now passing on. Like the gold at the end of the rainbow, this isn’t something tangible or real—the pot of gold is not your product—it’s just a way of seeing the space around a problem or an issue.
Even a good story will fall on deaf ears if the conversation has moved on, or if the story’s been told before. That’s why it’s important to let us know about good stories as they’re happening, not once they’re done. Just read the news links we post on the homepage or @fastcolabs. That’s the stuff we think is news-worthy, so if you can draw some parallel or pattern between your story and those, then you have a timely story. This is called finding your "news hook."
The best way to assert your news hook is to share with your reader some recent news stories, blog posts, or social discussion to verify that your story is apropos to the moment. For us, the specific window of time can vary wildly, but it always depends on how long the larger story stays afloat. Some stories (such as Google’s killing of Reader) will be relevant for months and months, up until and after they shutter the service in July. Others—say, Facebook’s latest privacy snafu—lose their sheen after a few days.
The toughest part about having a good story is knowing, at the earliest possible point, that it’s a good story. As soon as you have an inkling, start telling it live (preferably to us, or on your own blog). You may find this is a more successful way to build up your own blog or the enthusiasm of your friends and followers, because you’re allowing people to share the excitement with you.
The purpose of the angle of a story is to create tension which drives the reader onward in hopes of a reward—information, understanding—which you then give them at the end. In other words, the "angle" is the specific question the story is trying to answer, or a problem it seeks to solve. It goes without saying that the answer to this question should actually be unknown or worthy of debate. When the question your story attempts to answer is rhetorical or obvious (or a product) that’s when your "story" starts to sound like a press release.
People intuitively tune out stories that sound like sales pitches. If you want to grab peoples’ attention, take a hint from reality TV and show people the behind-the-scenes version. To do this, you’ll need to know your audience. Behind-the-scenes stories need to be tailored to the audience, because the nature of behind-the-scenes storytelling is that it’s full of minutiae, details—like your real-life actual work itself—which will quickly bore people outside the target audience. For Co.Labs, that means we want to hear the minutiae and details around the development process when you tell us your story, because we know our readers will be interested too.
Demos, code snippets, mockups, or other collateral should be highly prized parts of any story, especially if these assets have never been published. The benefit of storytelling on the web is that we can use visual aids, so we try to do it as often as possible.
We like technical narratives: stories about people doing battle with the creative process around software. Our reported stories strive to share one attribute: the "funnel" shape. At the top of the story, anyone can follow the importance of what’s happening, but as it progresses, it becomes more and more technical. Readers who just want the gist can drop off at any point; those with a deeper interest can keep reading and get the in-depth scoop. Your story should be interpretable (and curiosity-inducing) to non-technical tech enthusiasts, but should also have something meaty and technical for engineers to sink into.
Co.Labs is made up of three editors. We’re friendly and we speak your language. Tell us about what you’re building!
@chrisdannen is me. I edit this site and the feature stories on it. If you want to talk about how you built your product or service, let me know via Twitter.
@gabestein is our News Hacker. He handles news and experiments with new ways of reporting information. He's also a web developer with deep interests in technology that changes the way information flows through society.
@clayandres is our Editor at Large. He comes from the world of technical publishing, where he specialized in Mac and iOS developer books. He loves coffee and all things Cocoa.
In the instances that a team knows their own story well, the result is a high-quality article, lots of exposure for the project, and lots of traffic for us. Thank you for helping us tell good stories.
[Image: Flickr user Suicine]