I’ll never forget the first paper I wrote for the only journalism class I ever took. I was a quietly cocky sophomore in college, confident in my writing – until I saw the red scrawled all over those two pages, with a ginormous C+ at the top. I was your stereotypical Chinese-American kid, which meant I’d been trained to see any letter that was not an A as an F.
I went to ask the professor what I’d done wrong. As soon as I sat down in her office, I disintegrated into a sobbing mess. When I looked up, she regarded me with no small amount of pity. A beat reporter on Capitol Hill for nearly three decades, she had little patience for delicate flowers. She crystallized the problem matter-of-factly: My paper was too much about me, not enough about my subject. Where was the reporting? My professor told me to get out of my own head – though in blunt journalism-speak, it was more about getting my head out of an altogether different part of my body. She wanted me to adopt a reporter’s stance. She urged me to turn my eyes outward. She pushed me to empathize.
It’s so startling to see in my inbox the pileup of pitches that fail the empathy test.
That lesson has stuck with me. The work of storytelling is inherently relational. Communication – rooted in the Latin word communicare, which means “to share,” “to take part in” – is the close cousin of commune, communion, and community. But you can’t build community without empathy, which is also storytelling’s underemphasized building block.
It’s become cliché to tell a storyteller to “know your audience,” but all good communicators – journalists, publicists, kitchen-table conversationalists – understand that it has become cliché because it’s true. Which is why it’s so startling to see in my inbox the pileup of pitches that fail the empathy test. But what does empathy look like in the context of the journalist-PR relationship?
Read me. What is this pitch about state-of-the-art dildos I just got? Or this press release on private jets? Or this pitch about some startup that is in “pre-beta,” whatever that means? Anyway, none has any relevance to what I write about. When I have time, I try to respond to every such pitch with one request: Please read what I’ve written before. It will save both you and me time, and it acknowledges that we’re more than widgets. If you’re not willing to invest time in seeing if I’m the right writer, then why should I invest time in doing the story?
Ask me out. Shortly after I joined Fast Company in 2007, I got an email from a publicist who had read a couple of my stories. She didn’t have a pitch. She didn’t ask for a “deskside” (an appalling addition to the jargon that usually draws an instant no). She just wanted to get to know me. Did I have time for coffee? Yes, yes, yes! There’s a world of difference between a generic pitch and a personal invitation, and our working relationship has yielded a few stories we’re both proud of. What puzzles me is how few publicists make that small effort – I can count on one hand the number who have done the same over the past decade.
Move me. Good storytelling stirs other emotions. It teaches us something we didn’t know and makes us feel something we didn’t expect to feel. If we layer the who, what, when, why and how in compelling fashion, it evokes feelings: perhaps delight, or curiosity, or anger, or sadness, or wonder, or a mix of these things. Yet most pitches bore me. And I’m not a reliable alchemist – I can’t usually turn your lump-of-coal idea into journalistic gold. More to the point, I don’t want to.
This may sound trite, but it still can’t be said enough: Our business is built on relationships. It’s about my readers and me. It’s about your client and its target audience. It’s about us. So ditch your canned press release. Meet me. And tell me a good story so that I can do the same.
Photo credit: Fast Company covers (FastCompany.com)