Most journalists get dozens of story ideas every day, so when it comes to pitching, the words you use are incredibly important. A dull email subject header reduces the chances of your pitch being read (or could even mean it gets deleted, unopened), while a few well-chosen phrases can sell an idea in seconds.
Here’s a list of 9 words that will make your pitches more compelling…
Pitching should be about giving journalists what they need – great ideas that will interest and entertain their audience. But too many people make the mistake of using email pitches to ‘sell’ their business or organisation, which can be a big turn-off.
Using phrases like ‘here’s an idea that might work for your pages/programme’ or ‘is this something that could work for you?’ shows you’re putting the journalist’s needs/priorities ahead of your own, which will make them far more receptive to your ideas.
Journalists are in the business of telling stories. So using words and phrases like ‘here is a pitch for you’ or ‘have you read my press release?’ can sounds salesy.
‘I’ve got a story idea that might work for you’ or ‘have you had a chance to think about that story I suggested?’ is not only warmer; it’s also the kind of language you typically hear in a newsroom, which means journalists are far more likely to take you seriously.
See, hear, feel or touch
If you want to engage readers with any piece of writing, show, don’t tell. So don’t describe your new project in your pitches or press releases – show how it works through compelling examples.
Sensory language (i.e. language that appeals to the senses) is great for grabbing attention. If you can describe what a journalist might see, hear, smell, touch or taste, they’re far more likely to be interested in covering your story.
Someone once pitched me a story about a change in government policy for young people with learning and physical disabilities that ‘could mean eighteen-year-olds sitting around with eighty year olds in day care centres.’ That visual image provoked an emotional reaction in me and made me want to cover the story.
Journalists love exclusives, so if you can offer them first bite of the cherry on a story, do so in your email pitch – ideally in the opening line e.g. ‘I’ve got an exclusive story I think could work for your pages’.
A word of caution here though; only offer genuine exclusives.There’s nothing more annoying than finding out the so-called exclusive you’ve been offered is being covered by several other publication/programmes. And don’t dress up unremarkable stories as ‘exclusives’ – the word should really only be reserved for things that are genuine ‘firsts’.
Stories stick in peoples’ minds far more easily than information. So if you’re pitching a story based on complex research or data, using the word ‘imagine’ can help create a visual images that will help with understanding.
A few years ago, I was writing a collection of research stories for a university, when I was asked to interview an academic about his research on a new robot he was making. After fifteen minutes of chat about algorithms and coding, I still had no idea what the robot actually did. So I asked him: ‘If I was to watch this robot working, what would I see?’ He replied: ‘Well if you can imagine an elderly person living alone who sometimes struggles with everyday tasks like picking up things they’ve dropped on the floor or opening cans…my robot can help with that.’
Bingo. I got it immediately.
Journalists love firsts, so if your research, product, project – or whatever it is you’re trying to get coverage for – is new, make sure you say that – ideally in the opening of your email pitch.
But as with exclusives, a word of caution: only say its new if it genuinely is. I’ve lost count of the times a quick Google search has proved something someone is claiming as ‘new’ is actually pretty commonplace. And making false claims can make you look unprofessional.
Journalists also love research – particularly if its exclusive, new and is based on a decent-sized sample.
At the risk of sounding repetitive…don’t make false claims. I regularly get pitches ‘hooked’ onto research that is already in the public domain. That’s not to say journalists aren’t ever interested in old research (particularly if it relates to a current news story) but do be upfront about it. Trying to pass off old research as new data is the kind of thing that can harm your reputation.
Ellen Langer, a social psychologist and professor at Harvard University, carried out a study where she tested the impact of words and phrasing on people’s willingness to let someone cut in front of them at the photocopier.
These are the variations she used:
‘Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?’
‘Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?’
‘Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?’
While only 70% agreed to let her cut in line when she used the first question, more than 90% let her skip when she used either the second or third phrasing.
What does this mean for you? When you’re asking journalists to do something i.e. report on your business/organisation, always explain why. This means being clear about why they should cover a particular story in their publication/programme at a particular time i.e. give them a peg/hook.
Want to know which words you shouldn’t use in your pitches or press releases? Read this post on the 49 words you should avoid in a press release.
As Jon Morrow explains in this blog post on Power Words, words that suggest ‘forbidden fruit’ e.g. ‘banned’ ‘cover up’ or ‘withheld’ create curiosity and intrigue.
I often hear people saying that journalists are only interested in covering negative stories. While I can see how it might look that way, what I think we’re actually interested in is exposing things that are ‘broken’ or aren’t as they should be. Because if we get things like this out in the open, there’s a possibility of change.
‘Forbidden fruit’ words (Morrow lists around 25 in his post) usually hint that things aren’t as they should be – making them exactly the sort of words that will pique a journalist’s interest.