Ali May — Story Strategies Tips
Founder & Creative Director at «Mayhart», writer at «Bloomberg»
Module «Marketing»
4 online-sessions. 16 October 2021
Ali is a known Writer, journalist and producer with Bloomberg, euronews and BBC who has interviewed world leaders, CEOs and Hollywood stars and advised international brands.
Lecture summary
What is Your Story?
We will create a compelling narrative around what you are doing with your brand, whether a product or service. We will look at media relations; who are journalists? What makes them tick? How can you approach them? Let’s say you have been successful in that department, and the press now invites you; the next step is talking about the art of the interview.

I will give you some practical tools to perform your best in front of a camera or a microphone. Finally, we will briefly talk about reputation in times of crisis. My focus will be to give you the press side of things, newspapers, television, and radio.

There has never been a better time to connect with your consumers directly, thanks to digital marketing. But it would be best if you didn’t forget that the traditional media is also reaching them; there is a huge value in seeing a story about you, your brand, your product, your service printed in the New York times or broadcast on the CNN or featured in a podcast. If there’s a negative story about your brand published in a reputable newspaper or broadcast by a dedicated channel, the impact on consumers will be massive. No matter how many millions you spend on an advertising campaign, they might already have made up their mind. The main thing is for you to create a compelling narrative about your company. If you don’t, others will fill the vacuum; make sure that your message is accurate and agreed upon within the company; if it has any contentious issues, make sure the legal team has seen it and approved it. You must be confident, consistent, and accurate in your message.

Consistency of message is of colossal importance, so make sure that all media-facing executives have access to company-wide material that they can use. Demand media training, you need it, don’t appear in front of the media if you’re not good, or if unprepared, don’t let your ego get in the way of your success, appoint the right spokesperson to do the job. There are a few things you need to bear in mind before all of this.

The fact that you think your brand is the most cutting edge globally or that your product or service is way ahead of the competition does not necessarily make your story newsworthy. What do I mean by a newsworthy story? If you look at the world of international news, the rules are pretty heartless; there is a lot that goes on in newsrooms that may be dehumanizing or tasteless, but they are facts, and you must be aware of them. For example, imagine there are two explosions on the same day, one in the center of Paris, the other at the heart of Kabul; two people were killed in each of these events, and several people were injured. You can bet that the news of the Paris explosion will be the headline on all international news channels, and pictures of it will be printed on the front page of every newspaper the day after.

The Kabul explosion might be just a tiny mention on page 27, very unlikely for it to be on a TV news bulletin. It's essential to try and answer why this happens. Let's count the ways; distance is a factor; methodically speaking, you will hear an explosion that happens in your neighborhood, but not the one in the next town. It is the same effect with international news. There is the undeniable tendency of human beings to care more about people in their immediate groups, your immediate family, the football team you support, your city, nationality, religious group, and your race. Not all of that is sinister. I'm not talking about disgusting extremist nationalism, and I'm talking about hardwired emotional responses about human psychology, the fact that most people like to belong and some don't. When something happens to members of any of these groupings that you belong to, you react more intensely. So an English journalist is sitting at the headquarters of the BBC in London will feel more connected to the loss of life in Paris, compared to the same event in Kabul.

There is also another factor, that is, explosions in Paris are sporadic than in Kabul. It is scarce for anyone to die from explosions in Paris, and many people have been victims of explosions in Kabul; what happens is that viewers and journalists alike get desensitized, which unfortunately results in dehumanizing afghan as if afghan lives don't matter as much as French lives.

Be aware of everything when you are thinking of your story; think of all the ways why your story is newsworthy. Please make a list of them; it's going to be very helpful. Let's talk about timing, don't underestimate the importance of timing; often, a story is killed not because it is not a good story, but because the time is not right.

You might have the best cards but play them at the wrong time, and you can lose the game; sorry, imagine you have worked for two years, and you have created the great rival to Airbnb, you're about to launch it, and a global pandemic hits, would you go ahead anyway? How would you position that with the press? Okay, this is a bit of an obvious one; let's raise the stakes. Did you come across the story of Paul 'Pen' Farthing? He is a British ex-marine who ran an animal shelter in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over a few weeks ago. He managed to get a charter flight and evacuate his 90 dogs and 70 cats back to the UK while his staff and their families were left behind. How does that sound to you? When that is the top headline, when that's what you hear, it doesn't matter that Paul 'Pen' Farthing did his best to evacuate his staff as well. Millions of Afghan lives were turned upside down overnight, with many fearing death and the whole saga just felt in bad taste; these are just some cautionary tales to get you thinking in news terms. Let's now focus on your story. What is your story? I keep asking this question, and I hope you know that already. You know it, can you give it to me in a concise, compelling way. First, I want you to think about the core of the story then it becomes a fun game. When you have the core, you can create the variations you will need for different platforms, purposes, and audiences. Their real art is creating specific narratives for specific audiences.

How you tell your story to venture capitalists to invest in your business can differ from telling your story to your end-users, your consumers. It's also very different when you are using it to show thought leadership—your angle matters.

Tips For How to Tell a Story Effectively
Make sure you know what's happening in your field, your industry; it is never just about your own business; it is about the environment about competitors about consumer behavior, economic trends, and 100 other things. You need to make sure that you have a bird' eye view of them, especially before appearing on the media. The more prepared you are, the more confident you will feel in telling your story.

Media Relations
Your success depends on understanding your public and knowing how to reach them. Make it your priority to know how communications are handled within your organization and with your audience. Сall it what you like; public affairs, media relations, or communications. Just remember that getting it right is vitally important to your success; make sure that the people who handle your communication, who are in charge of creating and crafting your message, are of the highest caliber. If you don’t have the right team in-house, invest in hiring specialist agencies or expert consultants to help you with it. The reward will be worth it, trust me.

Now you have your story, and you have done your research, and you feel confident. Next, media relations at its most basic is personal relationships between you and journalists, and it’s a two-way street. A journalist always needs reliable, knowledgeable people who they can call for a quick comment. You will need journalists to promote your story to get the word out about your business, your product, your service, your direct contact with journalists who work a relevant beat. In my opinion, we will get you some of the best results, but there are also other options; for example, you can publish your press lease on distribution lists that reach a lot of journalists; PR newswire is a good example.

One thing that bears fruit but, depending on the situation, might be worth trying is cold emailing certain journalists with your news or press release. If you do so, I suggest you take the time to personalize the email and tell them why you are sending it their way. Did you like their work from last week? Do you have respect for the publication they work? For example, you can say I enjoyed reading your take on plug-in hybrid cars being the best option for consumers for the next five years, something like that. Journalists are human; they have preferences, some like being contracted on DM or Whatsapp while others only want to be pitched via email, find out which will work best before pitching. A quick survey of their Twitter feed will generally provide the answers; while you are there, maybe you can start the conversation. Comment on tweets, join the debate; when you email them out of the blue, you might have something to start a conversation with; for example, you can say thank you for your candid response to my tweet on the environmental impact of the battery industry. Read the publication before pitching to it.

I can't emphasize this enough; read the specific pages. If it is intended as a profile, see how they do profiles. If it is for their food page, read the food page and several issues of the publication. When you work with journalists, never forget one rule; make their lives easy; journalists are very busy trying to delete all the irrelevant emails PR people send them. They also have to chase several stories at a time; on the bright side, they tend to come back for more if a source proves to be reliable, quick, and full of great ideas and sound bites. One fundamental thing you can do to make your press release stand out is format it precisely like a music store. A new story answers six questions: The five Ws and the one H. Who, what, where, why, when and How.

When writing a new story, you need to provide the answers to all these questions in the quickest possible way. There is no room for suspense in a news story; it is not a novel; it is, in fact, the opposite. You give it all away as fast as you can; your first sentence should give answers to at least three of those questions, and your reader needs to learn the core of your story by reading that first sentence. A structure that journalists have used for many years is called the inverted pyramids. The essential information then adds in less important details. Why? Because if the reader wants to skim the story, they can learn by just leading the reading the lead. Say your first paragraph will be edited using the inverted pyramid; it helps the sub-editor chop details from the bottom, knowing that they have not omitted the most crucial information. Journalists will always try to have more than one source, so try to have more voices than one in your press release.

Tips on Communicating Effectively
There is also a thing in news stories called the Nut Graph; it is a paragraph that provides the context to the story. Imagine if the story is about the surge in interest in a particular cryptocurrency. The nut graph might give insight into how the market has moved in the past twelve months and how other cryptos have done in comparison. The purpose of the news story is to communicate information quickly.

To do that, think about the language you’re using. Use simple short sentences, don’t make it too flowery, don’t use jargon and technical terms, don’t fall in the trap of cliché, basically think about saying it in the quickest, most straightforward way possible.

The Art Of The Interview
I want to think of an interview as a dance because I like a soft approach to interviewing; when you make people relax and trust you, you’re generally able to get more out of them, but there are other approaches and views on the matter. An interview, on the surface it is a simple format- two people sitting across from one another having a conversation. But underneath, it is often a power struggle, a battle for the psychological advantage.

When an interviewee makes you laugh or puts you at ease, you are more likely to relax around them, and hopefully, the result is all the best. I believe it doesn’t matter if you are interviewing someone for print or broadcast. It would be best if you had the same energy and dynamism; use your charm and humor. Still, when I interview, the essential thing I bear in mind is that I’m not talking to the president, the Oscar-winning actor, or a noble peace laureate; I am talking to a human being. When you level with people, talk to them as equals, they respond much better. We all have our doubts and uncertainties and anxieties but don’t let those take away from the joy you can have out of an interview. Let me give you some essential tips when you appear on camera; it will sound fundamental, but trust me, I have seen people make mistakes that could have easily been avoided; here we go:

Essential Tips When You Appear On Camera
Befriend the camera or ignore it, either enjoy being in front of it or imagine it doesn't exist, don't wear stripes or hats; stripes make you fuzzy if the filming is not in 4k. Your dance partner is your world; keep the focus, don't think about anything else, don't think about how you're doing, don't think about how you're appearing on your mum's TV screen. Give your 100 percent to the interaction with the interviewer, don't get ahead of yourself, one thing at a time, no distractions turn up your mobile, remove coins from your if you're chewing gum, drop it in the bin.

Understand your audience, think about the platform that you appear for and what audience they serve. Your interview on Bloomberg will undoubtedly be a different one on Vice or CNN. Be yourself; you might have quirks everybody does; think how to use them to your advantage, as I play with my hands while talking.
On camera, always answer in complete sentences, don't start from the middle of a sentence, don't answer as you do in real life; you are not doing real life; it's in front of the camera. I asked you how your breakfast was, you answered, yeah, it was delicious. On the camera, you say: my breakfast was delicious.

When it comes to radio, it is the same. Your voice will carry your emotions, and your vibe.