Small business

Four free PR resources you already have (but probably aren't using enough)...

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight (or know someone who has) this phrase might be familiar:

‘I’ll start my diet when...I’ve been on holiday/moved house/joined a gym*.

I’ve noticed people - small business owners, in particular - often talk about PR in the same way.

‘I’ll start doing some PR when I’ve…got more clients/hit six figures/can afford to hire a PR company*.

Or (for bigger organisations):

‘We’ll do more PR when we’ve got this launch out the way/hired a new team member/moved offices*.

So just as you might delay starting a diet until you have the latest exercise equipment or diet book, you end up putting off  PR until you have a press release (or a costly distribution service) or the cash to hire a professional.

But you don’t need a string of qualifications - or even experience - to get coverage in a newspaper or magazine, or on radio or TV. In fact, you already have many resources at your disposal - that won’t cost you a thing (or certainly no more than the price of a posh coffee).

These are:

Internet access

Getting media coverage is all about understanding what journalists are looking for and offering stories that are perfect fit for their audience. This means studying the publication or programmes you’d like to get coverage in, over a period of time, so you can get a feel for the (a) audience and (b) the kind of content that is typically covered.

While this might seem time-consuming, investing time upfront, to do this kind of research will save you time pitching ideas that journalists are never going to run with.

Let’s say you’re keen to get coverage in a leading business magazine. Your initial idea might be to offer a first-person interview with yourself or your CEO. But after studying a number of back editions, you notice that they never feature this kind of article...which means pitching this would be a complete waste of time. They do, however, have a regular opinion column so you suggest an idea for that instead, giving yourself a much better chance of success.

Most publications and programmes now publish most (if not all) of their back content online (if they don’t or it’s behind a paywall, there’s more about what to do below) which means it’s perfectly possible to do this research online.

You can also use the internet to find the email addresses of people you want to pitch ideas to (although the phone is usually quicker) and connect with journalists on social media platforms like Twitter.

Tip: If you can’t find TV/radio programmes online, you can often find clips on Youtube.

Libraries and cafes

If the publication you want to pitch to is behind a paywall, you can get copies of most magazines and newspapers in libraries. Some cafes - particularly those attached to big bookshops - are happy for you to thumb through their newspapers and magazines (as long as you buy a coffee).

Even if you can get access to everything you need online, it’s a good idea to ‘get your fingers grubby’ from time to time, as it’s often easier to get a sense of the structure of a newspaper or magazine from the print version and identifying regular slots or sections you could suggest ideas to.

Telephone

If you’ve got thousands of pounds to spare, you can buy databases of journalists’ contact details, but in my experience, they are often out-of-date and don’t give you those little bits of information that can make all the difference to your pitching (that x editor is on a sabbatical or covering x journalist’s maternity leave for example).

While you might get the odd grumpy comment (newsrooms are generally busy places), and get passed around a bit before you find the right person, the information you get from a quick ring-round is usually far more useful than any database. And the conversations you have can often lead to coverage.

Passion

If you love your business or organisation, it will show. Most journalists would much rather talk to a passionate business owner or CEO than a PR exec handling various clients/accounts who has to keep nipping off to get information...so use this to your advantage.

*delete/replace as appropriate

17 signs you're doing ok with your PR (even if you don't think so)...

If you’re reading this post, I’m sure you already know there’s no quick-fix for PR. With so many people competing for column inches and airtime, journalists can afford to be choosy about the stories they run. So it can take months of pitching - and countless knockbacks - to place a story in a newspaper or land an interview on TV.

But when you’re hearing the word ‘no’ more than ‘yes’ it’s tempting to lose heart. Especially if you’re working with people who think PR is as easy as dashing off a press release or calling an editor with a story idea.

The good news is you’re probably doing better than you think you are. But you're so busy trying to make the big things happen, you’re not celebrating the small wins.

So rather than dwelling on all the things that aren’t going right for you, start looking at what is working. When you focus on the everyday victories - like getting to speak to the journalist you’ve been chasing for weeks or setting up a lunch with an editor you’re keen to work with - you’ll find it’s easier to stay positive and keep moving forward. And it’s those small, incremental steps that help you build up the relationships - and the know-how - to create incredible PR opportunities.

Having trouble seeing the positives? Here’s 23 signs you’re doing ok with your PR...

1. Journalists are replying to your emails…even if it’s a ‘no’

Most journalists get hundreds of pitches and press releases every week (some every day). They can’t possibly reply to them all. So if they’re taking the time to respond to your pitches (even if it’s a ‘no’), it shows you're pitching decent ideas. And given that most of the ideas they get are completely irrelevant, that definitely makes you memorable.

2. Journalists sometimes call you

When journalists call you for help with a story, it shows they (a) know what you do and (b) see you as a credible source of stories and comment. Given there are so many businesses and organisations out there trying to get their attention, this is a Very Good Thing.

3. You’re networking with journalists on social media

Looked up a journalist on Twitter today? Or, better still, tweeted one? Give yourself a pat on the back. The payback may not come immediately, but if you’re making Twitter lists of journalists and  sharing their articles or responding to their case study requests (even if there is no immediate gain for you), you’re building relationships that will serve you well in the future.

4. You’re listening to feedback (even if it’s silence) 

If you’re taking the time to look at unsuccessful pitches/press releases and analyse what you think went wrong - and how you might do better next time - congratulations. You’re one step closer to getting your next 'yes.'

5. You’re getting better at handling people who think they can do your job 

Working with people who think writing a press release or calling a journalist is a guarantee of press coverage is annoying. But complaining about it won’t change anything. If you’ve organised some media training or invited a journalist in to talk to your team about how it really  works - well done. You’re taking responsibility for educating colleagues about how the media works - which will make your life easier in the long run.

6. You’re prepared to fail

Pitched to a publication or programme you thought was ‘out of reach’? You’re doing a great job. If you want to grow, you have to be prepared to get uncomfortable sometimes. Keep going.

7. You’re committed to understanding the publications/programmes you pitch to

If you’ve spent time studying the publications or programmes you want to get coverage in (and by that I mean analysing the content, in detail, over a number of days/weeks/months) you’re doing the one thing that will really make a difference to your pitching success. Keep doing it.

8. You’re taking every opportunity to meet journalists 

Got out of bed an hour earlier for a breakfast briefing with journalists? Gone to an evening drinks reception when you’d rather be in front of the telly - just so you can meet a particular editor? Smart move. Grabbing every opportunity to meet journalists, face-to-face, will make it much easier for you to create PR opportunities.

9. You’ve suffered knockbacks…but you haven’t let it hold you back

Rejection isn’t nice. But if you’re learning from every ‘no’ you get, and using this to improve your PR skills, you’ll be far more successful in the long run.

10. You go out of your way to help journalists…even if there’s nothing in it for you

Helped a journalist to find a tricky case study - or offered to do it yourself - even if there’s nothing in it for you? You’ve got the right idea. Showing you’re resourceful and can make things happen, quickly, will make you memorable to journalists. So when you contact them about something that will benefit you, they’ll be far more likely to pay attention.

11. You know PR is more than press coverage

You look at every ‘contact point’ people have with your business or organisation - from your social media profiles to the way staff answer the phone - and consider what it says about you. And you try to fix the bits that don’t work as well as they should do.

12. You’ve optimised your website…so journalists can find you

There’s nothing more frustrating for a journalist on a deadline, than finding the perfect organisation to talk about a particular topic...then not be able to get hold of anyone there. So if you’ve got easy-to-find PR contacts on your website - including a  mobile number for enquiries outside of regular office hours - you're increasing your chances of press coverage.

13. You’re social media savvy

You also know journalists use social media sites like Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram as search engines, so you’ve put PR contact details on your profiles too.

14. You ‘PR’ your press coverage

Getting PR is only part of the story; if you’ve landed coverage in a magazine, newspaper, or on radio or TV, you need to tell the world about it. So if you use social media channels to promote your press coverage and have a dedicated ‘in the media’ area on your website, you’re making the most of your media coverage.

15. You’re not elitist about press coverage

PR isn't about massaging egos (at least it shouldn't be). It’s about helping your business or organisation achieve its objectives - which can be anything from attracting new clients to influencing policymakers. So while you might love the idea of a spread in a weekend supplement, if the people you want to reach read a niche trade publication, that’s where you need to be. If you’re clear about who you want to reach and do your homework on what they read, watch and listen to, you’re far more likely get coverage in the right places.

16. You do your homework on lead times

Too many good stories don’t get media coverage because journalists don't hear about them in time. Monthly publications or programmes can work up to six months ahead. Weeklies can be up to six weeks. So if you’ve picked up the phone recently to find out about lead times (that is the time between an article/programme being commissioned and it being published/aired), you’ve got your priorities right.

17. You look beyond the obvious

If you don’t have anything new to say - a new product or piece of research for example - it’s tempting to think you can’t get press coverage. But there are so many PR opportunities out there that don’t revolve around news. So if you’ve tried pitching a ‘how to’ piece, creating a new story out of existing data or ‘piggybacking’ an opinion article on a topical news story, you’re thinking creatively - which is what great PR is all about. And here's some more ideas on how to get press coverage when you don't have any news. 

 

How to write a blog post every day (21 tips to get you started)...

If writing is part of your job, you’ll know that you can’t wait for inspiration to strike. To get that press release or article done you just have to sit down and write - even when you’re feeling stuck, stale or just short on good ideas.

But when it comes to blogging too many people lose momentum - or put off starting a blog altogether - because they fear they will run out of ideas.

When I first started this blog, I was keen to build up a bank of content, so I posted every day for several months, which wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d imagined. And although I don’t need to post every day any more, I’m pretty confident that if I needed to, I could.

So if you have to create content every day for your job (or you’d like to) here’s some tips to get you started.

1. Steal ideas

The internet is full of stuff that will ensure you never run short of inspiration, from content idea generators like this one to other peoples’ blog posts, podcasts and headlines. And the best thing is...it's all FREE! Read more about how to steal ideas in this blog post:

Why it’s good to be a copycat (plus five ideas you can steal from me)

2. Keep a list of headlines

Create a spreadsheet to record headline or blog posts that catch your attention. I’ve currently got around a hundred on mine, which I’m constantly adding to, so if I’m running low on inspiration, I’ve always got ideas to work with.

If you’re on the move, use a tool like Pocket or Evernote to ‘grab’ content ideas to add onto your spreadsheet at a later date.

3. Write at the same time every day

‘Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what gets you there.’

Make a commitment to write at the same time each day (such as first thing in the morning) and you’re much more likely to stick to your plan.

4. Use a timer

As the adage goes ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’

I often set my timer for paragraphs or sections of articles I’m writing. I planned this post (see point 6) and decided which articles I was going to link to in advance, but I’m setting my timer for two minutes per point, which stops me wasting time.

N.B I completed this one with 49 seconds to spare!

5. Use lists and numbers

People love list and numbered posts because they’re easy to scan and share. The three top performing posts on my blog are all list posts.

49 words you should avoid in your press releases

Eight things you can do to boost your press coverage when you don’t have any news

Four mistakes you might be making with your 'about' page 

6. Plan before you write

Speed up the writing process by finding any blog posts or articles you’re going to link to before you start writing. If you’re not stopping and starting to look things up, you’ll write much quicker.

7. Keep a list of questions

A good business or professional blog should provide value to readers (see 24), helping them solve their problems or just make their life easier in some way. So keeping a list of frequently asked questions can be a great way to create content. I keep a running list of questions people ask at my live training events. I also sometimes send out surveys to my email subscribers (using free tools like Wufoo) asking people about the challenges they are facing in their job/business, which is great way to generate content ideas.

8. Say something unexpected

People love controversy and debate, so statements that surprise people can be excellent click bait. My posts on why big words can make you look stupid and why it's good to be a copycat (plus five ideas you can steal from me) are amongst the best performing on my blog because they challenge received wisdom.

9. Create ‘how to’ posts

‘How to’ posts are always popular with readers and allow you present content in a more attractive, accessible way with screenshots, images and photographs. There are plenty of resources to help you create attractive images such as Canva and Picmonkey.  You can even add audio and video files with resources like AudioBoo and Screenflow.

My post on how to write exciting copy about boring things is one of the most popular on my blog.

10. Tell a story

People love stories, so don’t be afraid to mine your own life (or your friends’ - with their approval of course) for material. What tackling my fear of water taught me about getting press coverage is one of the most popular on this blog.

11. Create a content schedule

It doesn’t matter how creative you are,  there will be times when you’re stuck for ideas. That’s why creating a content schedule (which can just be a simple spreadsheet) listing what you’re going to write and when can be a lifesaver. If you’ve got a title and a commitment to post on a particular day, you’re far less likely to procrastinate.

12. Accept failure is inevitable

There will be times when you write something that doesn’t go down as well as expected. You may even find yourself on the receiving end of criticism or even abuse (thankfully the latter is rare). Analyse what went wrong (and what you might have done differently) and move on - quick.

13. Keep an eye on your webstats

Sounds obvious, but if you notice particular kinds of content e.g. list posts is performing well with your audience, you should probably do more of the same.

14. Make use of ‘dead’ time

Don’t waste that 20 minute train journey or wait for a meeting messing about on the internet. If you plan out your blog posts in advance, you can write chunks of it when you get ‘dead’ time.

A single blog post generally takes me 1-2 hours (including planning), which means I can get a section of a post written on my 17 minute train journey into London. It doesn’t sound like much, but it all adds up...

15. Don’t navel-gaze

The single biggest mistake I see people making with blogs is to write solely about themselves/their organisation...which makes pretty dull reading for most people. Be honest with yourself: will anyone really care about your charity fundraising day or your CEO’s rambling thoughts on suchandsuch?

Keep in mind that business or professional blogs should help your audience solve their problems or make their lives easier in some way and you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

16. Write in batches

A quick admission: I don’t do this myself because the thought of spending eight hours’ solid writing blog posts doesn’t appeal to me. But, for some people, blocking out a day or a month (or a week, depending on how much content you have to create) can be a great way to get the job done.

17. Bring together opposing ideas

If you’re stuck for inspiration, putting together two opposing ideas can be a great way to generate content - and it’s create clickbait for headlines. How to write exciting copy about boring things is really popular on this blog, as is why using big words can make you look stupid. 

18. Use guest posters

This isn’t something I do very often because of my USP (the fact I’m a journalist giving advice on PR), but can be a great way to generate fresh content - and a new audience - for your blog.

19. Repurpose old content

I recently carried out a ‘content audit’ of my blog, getting rid of anything I felt was out of date or below par. The process gave me loads of ideas on how I might repurpose existing content e.g. refreshing/updating old blog posts, turning list posts into separate blog posts, putting the content into different formats (e.g. presentations, infographics, video lessons etc), offering it for guest posts...

Here are two blog posts I’ve found really useful on the topic:

12 ways to extend the life of every article you write

Three clever things to do with old blog posts

20. Pose questions

Questions can be a great way to ‘hook’ readers in, as with this example:

Think you need to hire a PR company? Read this. 

21. Find news hooks

Current news stories can also be a great ‘hook’ for blog posts (particularly if they are a bit off beat or ‘quirky’).

 

Eight things you can do to boost your press coverage when you don’t have any news

If you work in PR, you’re probably under pressure from colleagues to get as much press coverage as possible. But what do you do when you don’t really have anything new to say? Perhaps you’ve just launched a big press campaign. Or a released a new report. Whatever the reason, if you’re struggling to find new angles to pitch..don’t panic.

Here’s eight ideas to help you break the dry spell...

1. Create a campaign

Most organisations I come across do zillions of interesting things, but unless you’ve got something to new to say you’re unlikely to attract journalists’ attention.

Launching a campaign about something you/your organisation feels strongly about can be a great way to get media coverage and can be as easy as throwing up a web page and creating a social media hashtag.

The Incorporated Society of Musicians has launched numerous campaigns - most of which have attracted press coverage and I recently edited this story for the Guardian about the National Association of Specialist College’s new campaign.

Obviously I’m not suggesting you start campaigns just to get press coverage; but if there is an issue you feel strongly about, it can be an effective way to influence change and raise your media profile.

2. Crunch some data

Most organisations I’ve worked with are sitting on - or have the means to create - valuable data that would be of interest to the media. For example, The Key - a support service for school leaders - has used its database of teachers to gather data on everything from child mental health to schools meals to the teaching of phonics (and a whole lot more) which has led press coverage in -amongst others - the Guardian, Telegraph, BBC and the TES.

Even if you don’t have access to your own data, consider how you could analyse existing data (such as government figures) to find new angles, like this BBC article which looks at the link between how many days of school holidays children get in different countries and how well they do at school. It’s fun, seasonal...and is a new twist on official Pisa figures (the international ‘league tables’)

3. Write a letter

Another effective way to attract media attention is to get a group of people (and this works particularly well with academics and researchers) to put their names to a joint letter to a newspaper on an issue of importance. This Guardian story about a group of academics claiming that the new national curriculum is dumbing down education is a good example.

Again, I’m not suggesting you organise joint letters purely to get media coverage. But if there’s an issue you want to raise, it can be a great way to influence change and grow your influence in the media.

4. Say something interesting

Even if you don’t have any news of your own, there’s no reason why you can’t pitch an opinion article that is ‘hooked’ onto a current news story (although do bear in mind that you need to move quickly and there’s more about pitching opinion articles here).

You don’t always need a news hook to pitch a comment piece. Journalists sometimes pick up on blog posts or articles published elsewhere as in this Telegraph story on a head teacher’s call for children to study no more than five subjects at school or this one calling for the school starting age to be delayed until six.

And if you (or a colleague) are speaking at an event, you can pitch a comment piece around something you will be saying there. But do bear in mind you need to have a strong ‘line’; editors aren’t generally interested in ‘fence sitters.’

5. Pitch a ‘how to’ article

You don’t always have to pitch ‘news.’ Editors are increasingly looking for other kinds of content - particularly online - and sharing your expertise can be a great way to get coverage for your client or organisation.

This article on things teachers need to know about the latest reforms to special needs legislation is a good example as is this ‘live chat on the Guardian’s Social Care Network (remember that content doesn’t always have to be written).

I’ve recently written a series of articles for the Guardian’s Small Business Network on how company owners can get more press coverage - which has achieved my objective of connecting with more small business owners.

6. Think creatively

It sounds harsh, but it’s always worth reminding yourself that journalists are not interested in your organisation or business -  they’re interested in creating compelling content that will engage their audience.

So instead of trying to get journalists to write about your upcoming event or project (which they probably won’t be interested in, unless it’s really unusual) think about what you could offer them that will interest them and will allow you to get a mention for your organisation/client. It’s a subtle change in your approach (I think of it as ‘flipping’ the problem) but it can pay off in big ways.

This Daily Mail article about pink lego being to blame for girls’ lack of interest in science was an attempt to raise awareness of the Education Innovation conference. Journalists weren’t interested in writing about the event. But they were interested in what one of the speakers at the event had to say.

And this TES interview with David Baddiel came ahead of the Sunday Times Festival of Education; realistically speaking, there’s only so much a journalist can write about an event like this, but placing an interview with a speaker (see the mention at the end of the piece) can be an effective form of publicity.

7. Do a ‘personality’ test

What happens when someone puts the name of your organisation or business into Google? How many social media profiles does it appear on? Is the information up to date? Or are there inconsistencies between your website, social media platforms and the content your produce?

As a journalist, the first thing I do when I’m looking for someone/an organisation to talk to is Google them. All too often, I find websites/blogs that haven’t been updated, half-finished social media profiles, blogs that haven’t been updated for months…

If I’m looking for a specialist to interview on a particular subject, I’m much more likely to go for the one with the up-to-date LinkedIn profile, with examples of their work and them talking on video, than someone with a half-finished profile, Twitter feed or Facebook page they haven’t posted on for ages.

So if you find yourself with a bit of downtime, it’s a good idea to do an audit of your digital personality. Put yourself in the shoes of a journalist: how likely are they to contact you based on a Google search. Use what you’ve learned to make some improvements and you’ll be far more likely to get journalists calling you - rather than the other way round.

8. Set up meetings with journalists (remember freelancers are your friends)

Finding yourself with a bit of time on your hands is an ideal opportunity to set up meetings with journalists. While it can be hard to secure coffees and lunches with time poor staff journalists, freelancers are often more flexible and can sometimes be a better source of information/advice. Because most freelance journalists contribute to several media outlets, they can often give you an insight into how things work on several publications and programmes. And as their livelihood depends on developing brilliant stories (if they don’t get commissioned, they don’t eat) they’ll be much more amenable to spending time knocking pitches into shape.

 

Four mistakes you might be making with your 'about' page...

Five mistakes you might be making with (5)

“Like it or not, we’re all in sales now.”

That’s what the author Daniel Pink  told delegates at the American Booksellers' Association's annual conference back in 2012.

He was absolutely right. We’re all selling something (if it’s not products or services, it’s ideas) and social media puts us right in front of our potential customers, every single day.

Your ‘about’ page is one of the most important sales opportunities for your business or organisation (it’s certainly one of the most visited pages on my website). It tells people what you do and communicates your vision and values. But many businesses or organisations overlook the opportunity to sell themselves.

While there’s no magic formula for the perfect ‘about’ page (what works for one business or organisation may not necessarily work for another), there are some definite no-nos. Here’s a round-up of the most common mistakes:

1. It’s all about you, you you!

It’s so obvious that people miss it.

Your ‘about’ page shouldn’t be about you; it should be about how your products and/or services can help people.

Think about the last time you visited an ‘about’ page. Perhaps you needed information (as a journalist, I often look at ‘about’ pages to check if an organisation is the right source for a quote) or wanted to buy in some expertise (copywriting or design, for example).

You didn’t want a long, rambling history. You wanted a couple of paragraphs that would tell you if the organisation or individual could help solve your problems.

So don’t navel-gaze; create copy that shows visitors to your website how you can help them.

And remember the principle of ‘show don’t tell.’ If you’ve got a blog, provide links to your most popular posts. Or provide a downloadable tips pdf or a video lesson (add an opt-in box and you can collect email addresses for marketing purposes). Anything that demonstrates your expertise will make you far more credible.

Don’t navel-gaze; create copy that shows (1)

2. You haven’t thought about your audience

When I ask clients what sort of people they have in mind when they’re creating web copy, they often say ‘everyone.’ But I’ve yet to come across a business without an ideal customer or a not-for-profit organisation that isn’t clear about the kind of people it wants to engage with.

If you try to create copy that appeals to ‘everyone’ you’ll end up pleasing no one. So before you start writing your ‘about’ page, ask yourself these key questions:

1. Who is your target audience (you may have several - in which case answer these questions for each type).

2. What are their biggest problems? What keeps them awake at night?

3. How can you help solve their problems/make their life easier?

Being clear about your audience will help you create the right kind of content for your audience, in the appropriate style and tone.

3. You don’t have an ‘elevator pitch’

So many ‘about’ pages leave me feeling confused. That’s because many organisations and businesses struggle to describe what they actually do. But if you want to your site visitors to stick around, you need to nail it in a sentence or two.

Take a look at the mental health charity Mind’s ‘about’ page, which makes its mission and purpose clear in just 23 words.

unnamed

 

And although the copy could be tightened up in places, Sweatshop’s ‘about’ page is clear about the company’s mission: is help runners - of all levels of experience - find the best running shoes.

4. You’re too vanilla

You’ve heard the line about people wanting to do business with people.

Yet many ‘about’ pages I see have no personality. The tone is serious, the language formal. Some are stuffed with technical jargon.  And they’re often written in the third person, which can alienate the reader.

You can’t get a feel for the people behind the business or organisation. So there's no heart in it.

In my own About Me page, I’ve been really clear about how I like to work (and how I don’t). Not only does this communicate something about me as a person, it’s also about helping potential clients to decide if I’m the right person for them to work with (and saving us both time if I’m not).

Take a look at this ‘about’ page from Howie’s.

 

unnamed (2)

Not only does it tell a story (and stories can be a powerful way to draw people in), it communicates something about the company’s core values (high quality, environmentally friendly). It’s also selling a lifestyle (outdoorsy, healthy, green) that potential customers can identify with. Notice too the kind of language and phrases used: ‘we believe’ + ‘last longer’ + ‘better for the environment’ + ‘no silly stuff’ + ‘common sense.’

It can be helpful to think of your ‘about’ page like the blurb on the back of a book (or if you’ve gone paperless, like me, the ‘product description’ on Amazon). That means keeping it crisp and punchy: short sentences, short paragraphs and simple words.

Did you find this article useful? If so, why not post a link to your ‘about’ page in the comments section below with your comments or questions...

 

 

Would your story idea pass the BBC homepage test?

There’s a story doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment about a guy who’s selling his house because he’s lost his job and can’t afford the upkeep.

Unfortunate, but not that unusual, you might think. Until you see the pictures of the house. It may look pretty unremarkable from the outside, but inside it’s extraordinary. Every single room has been transformed into a different period from history - from a 1950s New Orleans kitchen to a Cambodian treehouse loft.

What makes the story even more extraordinary is that the owner, John Trevillian, has spent over 25 years and £700,000 converting the house, room by room.

But now it’s only worth £350,000.

I mention it because it is exactly the kind of story that makes editors sit up and take notice. It’s unusual and surprising. It has a hero (the owner, John Trevillian), a villain (his employer), an inciting event (getting laid off), a quest (turns out there’s a campaign to save his house)...and well, we’ll have to wait and see what the climax is.*

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 22.36.53

It also has all three elements that make something a compelling read (and also, not uncoincidentally, what editors look for in a story).

Fear (Will John Trevillian lose his house?)

Curiosity (Who is this John Trevillian guy? What kind of person would blow that kind of money on a house?)

'What’s in it for me?’ (Am I in danger of losing my house?)

It also passes the ‘BBC homepage’ test - a quick and easy way to find out whether a story has national potential - or not.

So what is the ‘BBC homepage’ test?

I should start by saying this is a totally made up term (by me), but it’s one I use all the time when I’m delivering pitching and media interview training.

And as I’m always saying writers should ‘show not tell,’ take a look at this screenshot to see what I mean:

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A quick glance at the headlines for the most read and shared articles on the BBC news homepage (or on the homepage of any news website) tells you everything you need to know about what national editors are looking for.

It’s a common misconception that journalists are only interested in reporting ‘bad’ news. What they’re actually interested is telling stories that will engage their audience - issues they will care about.

From ‘The man who cross-stitched his own bank card’ to ‘Cow poo bus breaks national land speed record’ these stories hint at tension, the unexpected, heroes, villains, quests and dramatic climaxes. They also look promising on the ‘fear, curiosity and what’s in it for me?’ front.

Heroes and villains

I’m not suggesting every story you pitch should be worthy of a ‘most read’ ranking on the BBC homepage. But if you can inject some of the qualities that makes stories popular and shareable (like surprise, drama, tension, heroes and villains and so on) into your pitches, you’ll have a much better chance of success.

And it doesn’t have to be negative. This BBC story challenges the commonly held view that texting is damaging children’s language skills. It offers surprise by turning traditional narrative roles on its head. Texting - typically the villain - is the ‘hero’ in this story.

And this story I wrote for the Guardian about a new mentoring scheme for young people only attracted column inches because it was the only project of its kind for young women and its future was under threat. There was also an element of the unexpected, as highlighted in the opening paragraphs of the article.

Reality Check

You can also use the ‘homepage’ test to see if your ideas have national potential.

For example, could you imagine reading the following headlines on the ‘most read’ section of the BBC homepage (or the homepage of any national publication)?

- Children don’t know how to stroke cats

- Tech start up company appoints new marketing director

- New iPhone app launched to help students choose university

These ideas come from real pitches sent to me over the past few months from people who clearly think these stories have national potential. And while they are extreme examples, when you’re working closely with an organisation or a client (or you’re running your own business), it’s easy to forget that what’s fascinating to you may be of absolutely no interest to a wider audience.

And even if your own news sense is razor sharp, you can use the ‘homepage’ test on colleagues who can’t tell the difference between a national, regional or industry story.

Just asking that question: ‘can you imagine seeing that story on the homepage of X publication?’ (or, better still, showing them the homepage) can be enough to convince colleagues who are clueless about the media.

*For an update on the John Trevillian story read this.