This week, we're getting a wealth of guidance from Jacqui Banaszynski about the art, craft and grit of reporting and writing. After yesterday's q&a, I had another question for her, based on some past posts to this blog:
What do you say, what advice do you offer, to writers who find the marketing and interviewing persistence you describe to go against everything they've been taught about politeness, respect and, for some, proper, ladylike behavior?
Here's her response. As a reminder, Banaszynski is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who now holds the Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism and an Editing Fellow at the Poynter Institute. She worked in newsrooms for more than 30 years, and now leads workshops for journalists around the world.
First, if I may indulge in a LOL moment. I grew up with four (large) brothers, raised by a mother who insisted I learn how to hold my own. The notion of “proper, ladylike behavior” didn’t exactly translate to the basketball court or baseball field in the way I think it’s suggested here. At the same time, I never saw a conflict between being competitive, intelligent and ambitious and being proper and feminine and attractive.
So the question itself, embedded in the notion of gender or femininity, is a bit of a puzzler to me. But the discomfort with self-promotion is very familiar. The same mother who taught me to hold my own in a sibling tussle also taught me that it’s bad manners to go bragging on yourself. And yes, she taught me to mind my own business, not be nosy, not pry into others’ affairs, etc.
Quite the dilemma for journalists, yes?
I’ve known a lot of journalists in my time who are flat-out hustlers, and I say that with admiration — perhaps even envy. They can charm, schmooze or bully their way into almost any situation and come out with the goods.
Not me. I’ve always believed — sometimes naively — that good work will get you noticed; and if not, good work should be its own reward. I also tend to lean more towards doing what works for the bigger group than for my own “score.” (Studies indicate that may be, in part, a gender-based tendency.)
So how do you “sell” yourself or your story, to either a story subject or an editor?
A few things to think about:
Step 1. Believe in what you’re doing.
If you’re trying to get an intimate interview, on deadline, with someone caught in a horrible tragedy, you have to believe that interview has value to the person and to the world, and that you will conduct the interview with as much respect as possible.
If you’re trying to convince an editor that you should travel to France to be fitted for a $600 couture bra and then write about it (I have a friend who did this), you have to believe that there are women— a lot of them — who are deeply curious about what it takes to find a perfect bra for their imperfect bodies.
At some level, you have to really find value in what you’re pitching, whether that value is in the idea or the experience you’ll get writing about it or the contacts you’ll make. Then you’re really not selling or self-promoting; rather, you’re relaying your passion, curiosity, sense of wonder, sense of fun, sense of outrage, desire to educate, belief in fairness, desire to try, etc.
Step 2. Do your homework.
There’s a story you’re dying to do? Make sure the publication you’re pitching it to does that kind of story, or you know enough about the publication to shape your pitch accordingly.
You want to interview someone hard to reach? Find people who can work as intermediaries to make a case for you.
Figure out how to make your idea of interest, use, value, fun not just for readers, but for the story subject.
You want more money for a story? Learn what the market rate is, by region, publication and author.
Step 3. Let go of a bit of self-protective ego.
This is going to sound counter-intuitive, because most people who don’t like to self-promote believe that only egotists do. But sometimes the failure to make your case — to get a difficult interview or defend your story to an editor — is really because you feel awkward or uncomfortable or defensive or shy. In other words, you make it about you, rather than about the story or the other person. If you shift the focus away from yourself, you’ll have a better chance of communicating your interest. And if you accept that momentary discomfort comes with the job, you’ll find that nothing bad really happens.
I can’t stress this enough. Time and again, I see reporters who won’t ask a difficult question or call a reluctant subject back because they think they are being polite — they’re protecting the feelings of the other person. But it’s the usually the reporter who is protecting himself when he doesn’t take that uncomfortable step.
Let’s say you’re interviewing parents who lost a son in Iraq. Do you really think asking them about their son is going to make their pain worse? Or do you think it could give them a chance to honor their son by letting the world know why he was special? (This is why writing obituaries is such a good experience; you discover that almost everyone wants to talk. And you learn how to ask for that conversation at a very sensitive time.) I’m a huge believer in letting other people (adults) make their own choices. Anything else is disrespectful.
So don’t pre-determine whether they want to talk by not asking them, or by editing your questions down to the most pallid. Don’t pre-determine an editor’s response to a story pitch by refusing to articulate — cogently and passionately — why you believe in the story.
Step 4. Learn not to take the first no as final.
People can change their minds with time. One skill to learn is to ask questions that give people a reason to say yes.
- If someone doesn’t want to talk to you, maybe they don’t want to talk to you right now; ask if you could call back in a few days.
- If someone is resistant to cooperating on a story, ask if you could come by and introduce yourself in person to explain your interest, or talk to them first on background to identify their concerns.
- If an editor isn’t interested in your story pitch, ask if there are elements of the idea that work for her, or if she has other stories needing to be done or if you could submit the story on spec.
Step 5. Finally, rehearse.
I’m serious.Whether it’s preparing for an interview you are nervous about or a pitch to an editor, it helps enormously to rehearse the conversation with a trusted colleague or friend. It’s similar to an athlete who envisions a game or race in advance: She can envision challenges, work out solutions and then see the route to success.
The same holds true of the kind of conversations that may feel awkward because they may feel pushy. If you rehearse the conversation, with someone playing the other role or at least listening very hard to your side of the conversation and giving you feedback, you will have to figure out how you’re going to make your case. You’ll have a chance to work on phrasing and tone of voice — things that might trip you up, especially if you’re nervous. And you’ll have to think about how the other person might react — what does the story subject or editor need to know that makes them interested in your proposal?
Is this pushy self-promotion? I think that’s more a matter of style than anything else. And a pushy style — not the sell itself — is what might seem unladylike. If you believe in what you are proposing, then your job is to communicate that to others. You are really just telling another story, to an audience, and you have to do the same things you do when you write: You have to think about that audience, think about what your story is really about and why someone should read it, and then make that very clear in an engaging and honest way.