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Uncovering compelling human interest stories to promote an event

A photo of participants from this year's Turkey Trot.


Time-honored traditions and events are part of the fabric of our lives. They warm the heart, soothe the soul and give us something to treasure and be grateful for, especially during the holidays.

As communicators, we look to harness those emotions in our writing and story pitching. So, this year, when planning to share the details for one of the season’s most anticipated events, the YMCA Turkey Trot, we asked questions – not just the “when” and the “where” questions. We dug deeper – what is the motivation for the event? Who does it benefit? Why has the event been so successful after all these years? Who makes it happen and why? Can we meet them?

After a series of discussions, a story emerged – one that spoke to the “why,” the “how” and for “whom.” The main character and hero of the story? Doug Williams. As a former addict who called Pittsburgh’s streets home, Doug understood what it’s like to go hungry for days at a time. He could recall the many times the path in front of him blurred or crumbled altogether as a result of poor life choices. After a stint in jail, Doug got his life back on track. Clean and sober, he realized his calling was to help others. Over the years, he was a cook and a caseworker for a variety of non-profits, eventually joining the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh helping with outreach and providing services to those in need. In 2017, donations raised from the Turkey Trot contributed to meals for 24 Pittsburgh area families that Doug provided.

His story, while not uncommon (homelessness, addiction and poverty continue to plague our communities) resonated with us because it’s authentic. It’s hopeful and it’s emotional. While we could share the logistics for the 28th annual event, we knew a human interest story would make the difference from it being just another yearly road race to burn calories (actually, the oldest footrace in the United States) to a race with the purpose of reducing food insecurity in Western Pennsylvania. Doug’s willingness to share his personal experience gave us this opportunity. And the result was extraordinary. Fifteen stories were published or aired over Thanksgiving week. Despite the blustery weather, the race was one of the most successful in the YMCA’s history.

A well-written human-interest story breaks through the clutter and routine details to focus on the true meaning and intent of a recurring event – even one that has been around since 1896 (the year of the very first Turkey Trot in Buffalo, NY).

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