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.*
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:
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.
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.