If you saw an elephant walking down the street, what would you want to know? What would you ask?
This is an exercise from Ellie Levenson, a freelance journalist, author and part-time lecturer at Goldsmiths College, at the University of London. She runs a one-on-one idea generation workshop with Journalism.co.uk which we went to.
The elephant in the room
Journalists are a curious bunch. They may start asking: where did the elephant come from? Did it escape from a zoo? Is it someone’s pet? Can people even have elephants as pets? Who decides what pets we can and cannot have? Are there laws around this? If so, when did we last update these laws?
Or here is a different train of thought: where is the elephant going? What is our frontline protocol for stopping a roaming animal around a city? What major incidents has this city had with roaming animals? Do zoos need a particular form of insurance or policy against this possibility?
Learning to be curious
Curiosity is simply allowing questions to take you down different paths, and not worry about asking a stupid question.
"Embrace the rabbit hole," says Levenson. Not every idea will be a winner, but her rule of thumb is that you only need one in 20 to be golden ideas. That is not a real statistic, by the way.
Not all of our story leads will be as obvious as an elephant walking down the street. They are hidden in our everyday activities, conversations and media consumption.
I also learned about "creative stress" on LinkedIn, a particular type of stress caused by the burden of having to constantly come up with fresh and thought-provoking ideas.
Many journalists have likely experienced that scrambling feeling before an editorial meeting or a job interview trying to come up with something to pitch and write.
So how does creative stress manifest itself differently from other types of stress? What are the specific coping methods for different forms of stress? When does stress becomes too much and we crack? Can we absorb different amounts of different types of stress? When you start to wonder, you come up with story ideas to explore.
One or two questions are often enough for an article. It can be tempting to try and cover everything but a more narrow focus creates a clearer piece. You can always revisit the unanswered questions later.
Spinning the slots
Levenson provides a formula: a feature idea = subject + angle + audience (and sometimes, but not always, a news hook).
Picture a slot machine with three reels: subject, angle and audience. You can develop a brand new story just by spinning one of those.
Change the subject: who else is doing this?
Change the angle: what else does the subject do? How could they do it differently?
Change the audience: what would another type of reader (younger, older, urban, expert, layperson etc.) want to know?
You can hit a dead end but this is also how you can produce multiple stories based on one lead.
This works well when looking at your competitors' work, and putting a new spin on their story. You also want to circle back to your best stories, so keep a record of your big hitters. Portfolios are a good idea.
The real power move is when you can produce a checklist of reader profiles and write for different audiences. For example, how does this story impact people from different professions, levels of income, age groups or sexual orientations?
But here is a catch: reporters often focus on what amuses or appeals to them. Do not write for yourself or your editor. Think about how stories impact your audience and keep your ego in check.
Read also: How to write the perfect pitch
'Pitch us a story'
When putting together a pitch, take something a publication or their competitor has written - especially something that did well on social media - and tweak the subject, angle or intended audience. Bonus points for a news hook but that might be trickier if you are not familiar with the topic.
If you are looking to break into a new area of reporting, spend some time reading about it and make note of every term that loses you. You may end up with more questions than answers though so try to start small and work up until you feel you can hold a conversation about a handful of key topics.
Stuck for story ideas? Book your place at Ellie Levenson's idea generation workshop, dates by arrangement, organised online or in-person.