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Find story ideas the easy way

Find story ideas the easy way
By Dan Mason • Issue #4 • View online
🪄 Read on: Two ways to turn simple questions into great content.
📈 Plus: Get to grips with core web vitals.
📸 Plus: The longest list of free photo websites ever (maybe).
I’m Dan - welcome to Useful Stuff for Storytellers, the newsletter for busy creatives who value practical advice and fast, free tools. If you enjoy the newsletter, please forward it to a friend and if this was sent to you, join us and subscribe here. You can unsubscribe at any time. Ready? Let’s go …

Simone Biles in action
Simone Biles in action
Simple questions that drive the story
News headlines like these are on a mission: to convey the story fast and first. Active, simple and present tense to grab attention; keyword focused for Google … they do the job.
But what next?
Journalists need to find fresh stories that cut through the noise, look great on mobile, advance the story and shout ‘read me’. It’s the same challenge content creators working for NGOs, in corporate comms or as freelancers face every day, often without an obvious launchpad like the Simone Biles story.
The solution starts with a ‘peg’ - an event, interview, anniversary or Olympic moment of drama. The peg is WHY we are telling the story NOW. But HOW are we going to tell it? This is where we need an ‘angle’.
We’ll find an angle by switching to what I call explainer mode.
I’ll tell you how it works, then show you an online tool that brings a new twist to the simplest technique in the book for generating story ideas. So …
Back to Simone Biles.
Start by placing yourself in the mind of your readers (or viewers, or listeners) and imagine what questions they are asking having just read one of those Biles stories. Scribble down questions that include, in turn, Who, Why, Where, When, What and How. Every line you write MUST include a question word. You can do it alone or brainstorm with others.
Be bold and creative - there is no such thing as a bad idea. Questions might include: What are the twisties? How did fans react? What happens next? Don’t assume your audience knows what you know. Who is Simone Biles? (and what makes her so special?) are good questions. You’ll often find more why’s, what’s and how’s - that’s OK.
Do it quickly - 15 minutes max. You should easily have six questions or more, the best of which will give you the way into the story (the angle) AND the base headline that will sell it to your audience.
Want to see the technique in action? Try this Google search: biles intitle:who (The intitle: operator - no space after the colon - returns only results with the keyword in the title). Now change who to what and so on. See what I mean? That’s explainer thinking.
Before you create your story you’ll need to refine your headline and marry it with a mobile-friendly story form (Q&A, curated story, video explainer, timeline or in pictures, for example). I’ll return to these in future issues.
But for now, you know how to take any topic and come up with story ideas that will work, by simply asking the questions.
Power to the people
Which brings us to a fantastic online tool that does the brainstorming for you, based on what people are actually searching for on Google: Answer the Public.
Answer the Public: Find out what people are really asking
Answer the Public: Find out what people are really asking
To understand how Answer the Public weaves its magic, go to your browser, launch an Incognito window (In Chrome: File > New Incognito Window) and open a Google search page (google.com or your country version will do it). I suggest Incognito because in your default search window, results will be skewed towards your previous searches.
When you first click inside the search window you should see a list of trending searches. If you see previous searches you can delete them by tapping the cross to the right of each search.
Now start to type simone biles. You’ll see after simone Google is already predicting your search based on what others have searched for. These are the Google ‘autocomplete’ results that Answer the Public harvests.
Answer the Public draws data from Google's predictive search
Answer the Public draws data from Google's predictive search
It’s time to go to the Answer the Public home page (no need to register), and type: simone biles. Choose a region and language if you wish, fasten your seatbelt and hit Search.
The results are displayed as a series of wheels, each pulling data from Google, I understand, in the last few hours. The first wheel displays questions, much like we explored above, except these are based on real searches by real people … your audience!
Darker green dots mean higher search volumes and clicking on any result will take you its Google Search page.
Part of an Answer the Public search results wheel
Part of an Answer the Public search results wheel
You’ll find questions in the wheel that make natural story angles, while others are just bizarre. But that’s what people are asking! Wheels further down the page deal with prepositions, comparisons and related searches.
There’s a Data tab above each wheel that displays the results in grid view, and your search can be downloaded as images or a CSV file.
There are several ways to view and download Answer the Public searches
There are several ways to view and download Answer the Public searches
Answer the Public works best with searches of one or two words. Avoid longer search strings, especially those including questions. As a free user you can make around three searches a day.
A hidden gem in Answer the Public is the Free Market Research page. This gives access to pre-loaded searches for topics, companies and organisations, updated on a monthly basis. You’ll find the link in the footer. For more information, here’s a tutorial video from Answer the Public.
There are of course lots of other tools and techniques that provide inspiration and ideas for stories. More of these to come! Meanwhile try the ‘explainer mode’ technique and Answer the Public yourself and let me know if they work for you.
✊ Extra stuff ...
Beyond being a great conversation opener, core web vitals are things under the bonnet of your website that influence Google ranking. Speed, mobile-friendliness and absence of annoying pop-ups really matter, as this post from Torque explains.
Wow - 38! I haven’t come across a few of the sites in this post by Hootsuite, which includes a useful reminder of what ‘free’ actually means.
Thank YOU for reading 👏
🌍 I’ve been fortunate to work with so many amazing creatives and causes around the world as a trainer and educator. I often receive (and welcome) ‘how do I …’ questions, so I started this newsletter to share the answers for the benefit of all.
Thanks for reading this edition and if you have a question, suggestion or useful stuff you’d like to share, get in touch: dan@danmason.co.uk 🔗 bio.link/masondan
⭐️ Simone Biles image: Wikimedia
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