So inevitably as a middle-aged family man with a home in the suburbs of North London I meet health professionals over dinner. ‘This is Peter, he’s a consultant anaesthetist…’ my host will say and I translate as ‘This is Peter he’s far more interesting than you and will hold court for the rest of the evening…’
It’s obviously absurd to generalise but experienced health practitioners tend to be articulate and entertaining company with fascinating opinions and insights. They’re always intriguing for an evening, impossible to compete with at least in our part of North London.
My contention is that doctors are a hidden communication gem. So hypothetically what would happen if some of these good talkers were exposed to journalists and editors directly that is without the PRs, the press releases, the policy makers and the surveys. Well obviously chaos inconsistent opinions, inappropriate detail, inconvenient truths would all be unleashed on the hacks.
But let’s pause before we panic. First what if we set some parameters for a conversation off the record will be respected, facts will be checked prior to publication, calls will be made to discover the policies behind the daily experience.
Could it work?
The key gain would be that because a doctor’s experience is direct, real and individual it is usually interesting. As editorial director of ShortList I receive about 50 press releases a day. If I leave my desk to visit the lavatory there will be five in my inbox.
They are easy to delete the subject box acts like a target for my delete trigger finger. Here’s a random selection from today’s influx I’ve been told about the world’s smallest fire hose, Felix Da Housecat’s new album and Oxfam’s presence at Glastonbury. What chance does the latest news on alcohol consumption or salt intake stand in this maelstrom of PR?
However you should see me after my dinner party encounter with a paediatrician or Clinical Psychologist. Hardly has the roast cod been scraped from the dishes, before I’m regaling my team with hot insider tales from the front line.
First I feel like I’m receiving primary source material exclusive, unexpurgated. Second I’ve been given access to anecdotes the precious currency of conversation and the heart of every good article. If there’s no anecdote there’s no real story I feel.
One of the tips I give to my junior writers lost for a good angle on a story, is to imagine they have three minutes in which to entertain a group of slightly tipsy easily bored people in a pub. This works in reverse if a story gripped some tipsy middle-class types fiddling with shavings of Parmesan then it can grip anyone.
So I’m going to try it! I’m going to seek out an informal, agenda-less meeting with someone specialising in an area relevant to my audience (25-45 year old professional men). It will be a sort of dinner party only without any guests or balsamic vinegar.
Will it simply turn into a meandering rant? Will my finely honed journalistic instincts (what? they are!) plus their training, years of experience and general charm result in a story or the start of a story?
I’ll report back!
To find out more about the men’s health debate visit bmj.com for a podcast, video and articles.
Phil Hilton has spent most of his professional career in men’s magazines. He is the former deputy of FHM, editor of Men’s Health and launched Nuts. He is now editorial director of ShortList. He attends a gym everyday, almost never visits the doctor and suffers from severe, masculine hypochondria, a Cinderella condition in urgent need of far more research funding.