Cara Laskaris speaks to Richard Klein, Oscar-winning factual TV producer and commissioner, about how to develop compelling ideas.
As journalists we’re often told that ideas are our currency – as if cartoon-like ‘light bulb moments’ pop into our heads on demand. But how often have you found yourself uninspired? Does it ever feel like your well of pitches has run dry?
Richard Klein has thought up and produced hundreds of documentaries as commissioning editor of Factual at the BBC, controller of BBC Four, and Director of Factual at ITV, commissioning everything from teenage knife crime exposés to Lucy Worsley’s “coquettish” romps through Tudor history. He talks to XCityPlus to share his insights into the process of idea development, from conception to shaping it into a compelling pitch.
Take your mind off it
Klein explains: “If I sat you down and said, ‘right, think of an idea’, you wouldn’t be able to. A really good idea will come to you when you’re in bed, or running, or on the tube.”
There’s a good reason for this: 90 per cent of our mind is subconscious. We often retrospectively kid ourselves that we have decided to do something, when in fact we normally act subconsciously and rewrite the process in our heads afterwards.
So the best way to come up with ideas is to let thoughts swirl around your head without trying too hard, and an idea will hit you when you least expect it. Thomas Edison even napped with steel balls in his hands so that, as he began to drift off, they would fall and wake him in a semi-sleeping state, as this was when his best ideas were born.
“You’re not doing it for yourself, because if you are you might as well go into a room on your own – it’s a waste of time”
Think inside the box
According to Klein: “There’s nothing new under the sun, but at the same time you have to be original. So I always say: Think inside the box, but with a twist. What’s outside the box is usually not very interesting.”
Rather than being different for the sake of it, focus on how you can find compelling angles within current themes and stories. Once you have found a good idea, you can add a fresh perspective or subvert people’s expectations.
Consider your audience
When generating documentary ideas, Klein always asks himself: “What will give audiences a good time? How am I going to amuse them?
“Because fundamentally, who are we making these programmes for? You’re not doing it for yourself, because if you are you might as well go into a room on your own – it’s a waste of time. You have to think about how to make a concept interesting and entertaining to audiences.”
Don’t keep it to yourself
Sometimes talking can be the best way to develop an idea. Bouncing off colleagues can help the seed of an idea to sprout and take shape. Creativity rarely flourishes in a vacuum.
Working in television is nothing if not collaborative, and Klein thrived on his roles running teams: “We were always giving each other ideas.” He is particularly proud of what his team at BBC Four managed to create when he was controller there – discovering new documentary talent like Dr Lucy Worsley and Dr Janina Ramirez, curating a distinctive voice for the channel and “giving BBC Two a run for their money”.
“It might sound rather mundane when we’re all trying to be amazing geniuses and artists, but the reality is that someone’s got to buy your idea”
Years at the top of the game have taught Klein the importance of knowing your market. “There’s no point having a great idea if no one’s going to buy it.
“So think about: What slot? What place? What magazine article? What paper? Who are you going to offer it to? You will need to shape your idea for that.
“It might sound rather mundane when we’re all trying to be amazing geniuses and artists, but the reality is that someone’s got to buy your idea. There isn’t an artist who’s lived on this planet who isn’t painting to sell his or her art – it’s not a shameful thing.”
We’re all sick of the term ‘elevator pitch’, but it can be a useful way to ensure that you are clear about your idea. If it needs a 1,000 word essay to understand, it probably won’t be marketable (‘every job is a sales job’ after all).
Try distilling your pitch into the shortest form possible – what would the opening line be? “If you can’t pitch it in the first sentence, you probably haven’t got the core of an idea there.”
Klein’s pearls of wisdom are sure to leave your ‘pitch well’ brimming with inspiration. So ditch the brainstorm, bin the boxes, and let your creativity roam free.