It happens to the best of us. You’re sitting at your computer, faced with writing a communiqué, press release or internal story on a dry topic.
The screen is blank, and you are mired in a tarpit of writer’s block.
Every writer faces difficult spells on a regular basis. Whether you’re suffering from writer’s block or a dearth of intranet article ideas, reporters’ story-hunting techniques can blast away the logjam and get the words flowing.
Many communication pros—whether internal, PR or executive—have had backgrounds as journalists, so it’s natural to reach back into our reporting experience for inspiration. For those who don’t have that experience, the techniques are easy to learn.
Here are a few ways to find stories or get the words flowing again:
1. Get internal clients to find story subjects for you.
If your story is hard to write, could it be because you’re writing about products or pushing messages rather than covering the people affected by them?
Journalism is all about human beings. Even stories about national trends often lead with individual stories, not facts and figures. Get your internal clients into the habit of thinking in terms of people, not just messages.
When a department or executive comes up with a communication request, insist that they provide a person who illustrates the message. Even if you’re just writing up a change in the paid time off plan, interview a person who benefits from the modification, as Seattle Children’s hospital did recently.
2. Listen for angles your sources might not recognize.
Non-communicators who come to you with a request don’t always recognize the best angle of their story. Rather than yawn and shoo them out the door, listen for a different approach.
In an NPR post on how to find stories, a writer says:
“Years ago, I was chatting with a PR contact who was trying to pitch me a story about sports. While we were talking, he happened to mention insurance policies in fantasy sports. He said people who played imaginary sports were spending real money to insure their pretend teams—and real companies were selling the policies. Boom—story idea! It wasn’t what he was hoping to pitch me, but I was hooked.”
3. Do man-on-the-street reporting.
Get up from your desk and go where the action is in your organization, be it the factory floor or the wing where your computer geeks are designing ways to replace your executives with robots.
It’s hard to dream up ideas sitting at your desk. Fill your notebook, and come back inspired.
When I started out as a small-town reporter, writing about city council decisions was often a thankless task. It worked far better when I walked around downtown in my Oregon city and talked to people doing something interesting—panhandling money, jackhammering pavement, selling ceramic gnomes on the sidewalk. This is also a great way to find ideas.
A classic in that genre is Dave Barry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story, “Can New York Save Itself?” in which he poses a serious question to a guy in a frankfurter costume handing out coupons for discounts at Nathan’s Famous hot dog stands. Barry writes:
“Can New York save itself?” I ask him.
“If there are more cops on the streets, there could be a possibility,” he says, through his breathing hole.
Your workplace may be lacking in opinionated New Yorkers in wiener garb, but you’ll find more interesting topics and approaches if you catch people engaging in uncommon activities.
4. Ask, ‘What’s on your desk?’
Check with your best or most important internal source and say, “What are you working on today?” or, “What’s on your desk?”
A reporter I know used to ask this question of the city attorney. This allowed her to get a leg up on the competition long before issues popped up on the city council agenda.
Who has given you good ideas in the past? Who is in the thick of things? If you’re an internal communicator, who has the power to affect the lives of employees? What issues are insufficiently understood?
5. Write about people’s hobbies—and tie them to the job.
Reporters like to probe for interesting tidbits about their subjects. Seek out employees with unusual hobbies and backstories, or who are doing inspiring nonprofit work, and ask them what effect it has on their jobs. Write about those people, and ask them to reflect on what their avocation brings to their job, as the staffing agency Robert Half does.
Are your co-workers directing a community theater production, building houses in Guatemala with their church group, working in a soup kitchen or participating in a triathlon? Feature them.
6. Ask your audience.
Some reporters seek story ideas on Twitter. You can cast your net through an internal social media site, your intranet or even your formal employee surveys.
Ask your readers what they’d like to read about. Make sure your questionnaire leaves a line for comments. Beyond that, talk to people everywhere you can, as the website Prof KRG suggests in a blog post on finding story ideas.
“Find people you know are in your typical readership base,” the writer says. Ask them what they wish they knew more about or would enjoy reading.
“Talk to people: Uber drivers, strangers in line at the grocery store—even people standing next to you in elevators.”
7. Practice solitary brainstorming.
An award-winning Boston Globe writer once stated that she starts every piece with a pen and a legal pad, Poynter Institute reports. Before telling editorial page readers what to think on a given subject, she first has to explore her own thoughts.
The notes she makes in those first moments make sense of the jumbled thoughts in her head. They will drive her reporting, plan her structure, make connections—all in rehearsal for the writing to come.
She told Poynter, “Then I turn to the screen, and somewhere in that list is a lead.”
8. Set up an intranet tip sheet.
Most newspapers have ways for readers to suggest stories electronically. Make it easy for employees to offer a feature idea for the intranet or your external blog through an online form.
Also, don’t always write about your most high-profile staffers. You might find an inspiring story in a boiler room employee who has worked there for 50 years, as Southern California-based Dignity Health recently did.
As it happens, he was born in that hospital. Surely, any organization could find a lesson in that kind of loyalty.