Have you ever wondered why people who make magazines, newspapers and big, content-rich websites never seem to run out of ideas? The truth is, there is a process for generating blog content ideas, and it frequently involves staring into space.
Not everyone will understand this. In every job I’ve had, I get harassed by colleagues for spending part of my time staring out the window. But I’ve always maintained it’s fundamentally necessary for any job involving writing and editing.
It’s because staring blankly out a window or at a wall (try not to stare blankly at colleagues, it freaks them out) kicks your brain into daydreaming mode, where it’s a lot easier to make connections between previously unrelated facts, opinions and events.
The blog content ideas funnel
When that connection is made, work flows quickly. There are countless examples of great work that has been done as a result of inspiration following daydreaming: John Lennon wrote “Nowhere Man” after giving up after trying for five hours to write a good song; Daydreaming led James Watson to uncover the structure of DNA; Elias Howe invented the automatic sewing machine as a result of it; Friedrich Nietzsche wrote the three books of Thus Spake Zarathustra in three separate ten-hour bursts of inspiration.
Marketers like to talk about a sales funnel, and the process of generating ideas can be seen the same way. Kicking your brain into daydreaming mode is a vital part of it, because in a very real sense, it ‘creates’ the funnel where ideas are forced together. But it’s important to remember that daydreaming is the penultimate stage in the creative process.
Yes, that’s right, the penultimate stage—the second last stage. The last stage is, obviously, writing down the idea, and clarifying it.
But what happens before then? How do you gather together the right amount of facts, personalities, opinions and events to mash together and make story ideas?
In marketing terms—how do you fill the top of the story idea funnel?
Filling the top of the funnel
Rather than just relying on my experience to answer that question, I went out and asked ten of the best writers in the country. Some of them have written for magazines I’ve edited for years, others I’ve crossed paths with in my travels through various Australian publishing houses. All of them are at the top of their game.
The one question I asked each of them was simply, ‘How do you come up with story ideas?’
Because I publish a few B2B magazines, a few of the writers focused their answers on coming up with ideas for trade magazines—but I think what they said was still applicable whether you’re publishing for a B2B or B2C audience.
You can group their answers into three broad categories: curiosity, serendipity, and empathy. Curiosity is all about researching details and keywords. Serendipity is all about being open to unusual or surprising information. And empathy is all about putting yourself in either your readers’ or your subject’s shoes.
Using curiosity for story ideas
From Mitchell Oakley Smith, editor at Engage and internationally published author:
“I have writers pitching stories to me on a daily basis and there seems to be two great factors that they forget when coming up ideas. The first is that they need to dig deeper than what lands in their inbox or they come across on news websites to find the stories that no one else is telling, or that people don’t yet know they want to read. The second – essentially an extension of that last thought – is that a single-subject story isn’t usually enough; if I’m going to bring in an experienced and talented writer to work on a story, I want something that’s rich and multilayered. So whatever the idea or theme is, I want to see evidence of it happening at least two or three times so that a thread develops and it can really be fleshed out. It’s essentially that practice we were taught in high school English of comparing and contrast, and it makes a story that much more engaging.”
Mitchell is the editor at Engage, as well as a published author and experienced writer in his own right. See more of his work at his website.
From Tracey Porter, journalist and content producer who writes for government agencies in Australia and New Zealand, independent publishing houses, multi-national newspaper groups, event companies and both international and domestic consumer brands.
“SEARCH ENGINE: Dr Google may not always be spot on the money when it comes to your health, however in terms of researching story ideas, his abilities are second to none. By putting in key SEO words you will often find gems of story ideas buried in pages two and beyond of the search results. Little known television or radio transcripts involving experts in their field often have some great seeds of stories that even the parties involved may have overlooked.
E-NEWSLETTERS: I used to send any unsolicited emails straight to my trash however since freelancing I now skim read what ever digital or print publication I am exposed to. In fact I read a shitload fullstop. Some of it is of interest, most of it is not but I always try to keep an open mind about the subject matter in the event it may generate a story idea.
EXISTING CONTACTS: Never overlook them. I once missed out on a one page spread in a metro broadsheet written about my mother-in-law because I was so familiar with her story I neglected to notice how interesting it was to an outsider. The story was waiting to be told but because I was so close to the subject matter I didn’t see its potential. The second lesson I learnt from this experience was never to invite fellow freelancers to your home!
PITCH TO ME: A well established journo will have his or her fingers in many pies. Those worth their salt often set up a ‘pitch to me call out’ where PR companies or anybody with a story to tell books in an allotted time in with the journo to discuss their idea for a story. The journo then sifts through the information to identify workable story ideas and will often pitch those to the relevant editor within their networks.
ACTIVE LISTENING: A good journo always has their ear to the ground. In the past I have been given great story ideas by engaging with cab drivers in the process of travelling to an interview, by chatting with a stranger in the sauna of our local gym or just like Forrest Gump while sitting at a bus stop.”
Frank Leggett, journalist and playwright:
“I compile the column, Your Life, for both Bite magazine and Vet Practice magazine. The trick is using key words when searching for interesting professionals. I start by searching for words such as ‘dentist’, ‘about us’ and then go a bit deeper. While it’s easy to find dentists and vets who are interested in ‘golfing’, ‘swimming’ and ‘outdoor activities’, I search for more unusual topics, such as ‘origami’, ‘model planes’, ‘flamenco dancing’ and even ‘Dr Who fan’.”
Award-winning playwright and journalist Frank Leggett won Best Play Short+Sweet in 2010 for his play Mr and Mrs Metcalfe Enjoy the Music of Elton John.
Using serendipity for ideas
From Hazel Flynn, author and journalist:
“My view is we’re surrounded by story ideas. The trick is recognising them and shaping them. It requires the ability to see beyond the obvious and the facility to salt away interesting facts until you find the right use for them. Underlying it all is endless curiosity, about everything. Three examples: 1) watching Game of Thrones set me thinking about fictional languages. A quick bit of research turned up the fact the JRR Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings books just to have a place to use the languages he’d invented. I worked up a nice pop-culture story on the topic, using these and other examples; 2) Idly chatting to a dog-groomer at the vet, she mentioned she used to be a beautician but got sick of having to talk to customers all day. It set me thinking about the unusual reasons people made major life changes, which I developed into a series of monthly magazine profiles; 3) Finally sorting through the thousands of images I’d amassed on my phone, I suddenly wondered who, in the age of camera phones, still used shopping centre photo booths. I staked out two and interviewed the users, a diverse and interesting bunch. It made for a terrific feature story.”
Check out a selection of Hazel’s work here.
From Sam Trenoweth, editor, author and journalist:
“Generating story ideas is the most time-consuming, and the most difficult, aspect of being a journalist, and it’s something I’m always (consciously or unconsciously) doing. Occasionally, fortuitously, I’ll stumble upon a story—like the time I was walking home and noticed a new protest camp had been set up on The Block in Redfern (a notorious couple of blocks of dilapidated houses in inner-Sydney, famous for its drug culture and its local Aboriginal population) or the time I was chatting with a friend who is a vet about the impacts that she envisaged climate change would have on her practice. Mostly, though, generating ideas means forging contacts in a whole range of industries, subscribing to international newspapers and journals, trawling the internet daily and keeping an eye out for the latest research and reports, following leads, investigating the ways in which international examples apply to the local scene, keeping abreast of trends, learning about news before it breaks and thinking about new ways to report it.”
See Samantha’s author page here.
Kerryn Ramsey, journalist and editor:
“I work on various columns for Engage Content, including Tools of the Trade and Your Life for Bite and Vet Practice. When I speak to vets and dentists, a quick conversation often provides other interesting snippets that can be used for future articles. For example, a vet may say they’re flat out because they’re about to expand the practice. By asking why and what’s the outcome, this can be turned into an interesting renovation feature down the track.
Find out more about Kerryn Ramsey on her website.
Using empathy for ideas
From Ben Canaider, who writes regularly about wine, beer and other drinks for both trade and consumer magazines:
“Story ideas for trade magazines are in many ways dictated by emerging international hospitality and beverage trends and cycles, which can be harder to predict than El Nino. Whereas consumer magazines tell readers why they like (and must like!) the latest wine style du jour, or why tasting a degustation menu at a communal table in an organic laneway bar is more fun than watching TV, trade magazines have to help set and leverage those consumer dining and drinking trends. Helping to guide hospitality management through that maze, and suggesting what might work well in Australian conditions, in light of local regulations and state-by-state liquor licence laws, not too mention how to do it in such as way as to retain goodwill and profit margins, requires one key thing: industry experience. The nexus that exists between a restauranteur and a customer, and between the restauranteur and the supplier, is a constantly moving three-dimensional target. But writing about it (and the associated “research”) is more fun than doing team-building sessions with Rubik’s Cubes at a corporate resort.”
Ben Canaider describes himself as a typist who drinks. Learn about him at his website.
From Shane Conroy, freelance writer and editor:
“Generating good story ideas is all about relevance to the reader. Ask yourself what topics they are likely to be interested in, what their pain points are, and how you can bring value to their online experience. Your editorial content shouldn’t simply be thinly-veiled advertising copy that pushes your product or service first, and offers value to your reader second — or not at all. Your readers are too smart for that and will quickly tune out. Rather, your content should help your readers solve a problem that is relevant to them or offer a new perspective on an issue that interests them. In other words, to build genuine engagement, put your readers’ needs before your own.”
Get an idea of Shane’s experience at his website.
From Sue Nelson, editor and journalist:
“My approach to coming up with story ideas is to think about the issues that affect me. Do they have application across the general population, or at least across large sections of it? If so, I know I can write with passion and engage a fairly broad section of readers in the process. If it’s about something fairly specialised, the same rules apply—what’s the hook that can make this topic more generally appealing? Cost of living, business expenses and tax are surprisingly interesting topics, perhaps because of their connection with the hip pocket. Human interest sounds like a cliche, but it is universal. Is there something burningly unjust about a situation? Alternatively, is there something ingenious about a product, service or concept that will change the world—make it more environmentally sustainable, productive, humane? These are the issues—surprisingly familiar across so many sectors—that I look for when I sit down at my keyboard.”
Sue Nelson keeps an archive of her old writing here.
From Chris Sheedy, author, corporate writer, journalist, copywriter, media consultant and content marketer:
“Know your readers and what will enrich their lives. As a journo, your opinions and tastes don’t count.
Don’t always go for the obvious. Lexus drivers don’t mind a car story every so often, but they also love golf and art, so take them there, too.
Know the reason for your story. What purpose is it serving for the reader? What itch does it scratch for them?
What effect are you after? Entertain? Inform? Challenge? Divide?
What is the topic? Narrow it down, then narrow it down again! Then bloody narrow it down yet again. Broad topics are unreadable—everything must be boiled down into personal experience. Nobody wants to read a story about the history of Virgin Australia. But a story about two original employees who met on the job and married, a story that peripherally happens to tell the history of the airline, is a killer. Nobody wants to read about world peace, but that 15-year-old kid that convinced two world leaders to come together for talks, there’s a story!”
Read all about Chris and more here .
Thinking like a writer
While some writers leaned more towards one method than another, what was clear is that they all used that combination of curiosity, serendipity and empathy to come up with ideas for stories. If you do the same, you will come up with a large number of interesting subjects. Your next step is to figure out how to repurpose those ideas into different types of story, to get the maximum value from your ideas.
Then all you have to do is stare out the window.
About the author: Rob Johnson
Rob Johnson is a director of Engage Content. When not writing about all aspects of content marketing, he leads a team of talented and good-looking writers and editors all living a Gen-X fantasy existence in a top secret headquarters in Pyrmont, on Sydney’s fashionable western side.