I often write for the sheer love of it. But when I publish my writing, I’m hoping for more. I want people to see it. Read it. Talk about it.
As a writer, nothing is more rewarding than knowing that people are talking about something you wrote. It almost makes up for the crappy rates. And as I’ve experienced over the past few years at Contently, that reward dynamic is the same when you’re publishing as a company, too. For our content team, it’s like a group high when a story that we publish makes serious waves.
Of course, as a content marketer, you’re after more than endorphins. You want your content to help you build relationships with high-value audiences and move the needle for your business. But to build an audience, the key is the same as when you’re trying to activate that reward center—you need to get people to talk. This has been true since before the Internet and will be true after the world gets nuked and the only things left are cockroaches and Gawker Media.
I recently bumped into Drake Baer of Business Insider—a journalist whose stories at Fast Company and now BI have consistently reached hundreds of thousands of readers—at a content marketing event. There, Drake talked about his secret for writing buzz-worthy, viral stories: a mnemonic device that goes F-I-N.
F IS FOR FLUENCY
One of my favorite editors used to always say, “Great writing speeds you along.” That’s the idea behind fluency: Rather than trying to impress your audience with fancy prose and a big vocabulary, focus on making your writing as easy to digest as possible.
This is the genius, in my opinion, behind J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Rowling’s prose is so masterful” or “her metaphors are amazing,” but everyone who read those books said, “I finished it so quickly.” From the diction to the sentence structures, Rowling’s writing is easy to follow and requires very little thinking about the writing itself—even though it’s loaded with silly names like Hufflepuff.
Speedy writing—or high fluency—allows people to process your message faster, which makes it more likely that the’ll share it, says Baer.
“What’s the cognitive load you’re asking people to make?” Baer asks. “The higher the load, the higher the cost, and the more friction [to spreading your message].”
I IS FOR IDENTITY
People connect with stories that they can personally relate to in some way. More importantly, Baer says, people click on headlines that promise something relatable. Here are a few of his:
- Why Big Ideas Happen in Your Late 30s
- The 25 Most Successful Harvard Business School Graduates
- 12 Stephen Hawking Quotes Reveal How a Genius Thinks
These posts each received hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of shares because, Baer says, we are drawn to stories that are about us or could be about us. If you’re in your 30s, you’re going to click on that first story; if you went to Harvard, or know someone who did, you’re going to click on the second. And if you fancy yourself intelligent (who doesn’t), you’re probably going to click on the third, like 700,000 other people. But more importantly, you’re going to share these stories with your friends and followers—either to (perhaps subconsciously) reinforce your identity or because they fit in these groups, too.
To “activate a reader population,” Baer says, you should “allow people to project their own identity into the story.”
(As an aside, this is why I often include personal anecdotes in my live presentations and blog posts. Years ago, I heard Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki talk about how he always personalizes his presentations in order to get the audience to connect with him. When I started doing this myself, I saw first hand that people tend to lean forward when you start telling personal stories. I believe that’s because we can all relate to personal stories—especially those that make us feel vulnerable or embarrassed or give an intimate look at our lives.)
N IS FOR NOVELTY
In 2009, philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates gave a speech at TED about the Malaria epidemic in Africa, urging viewers to get involved in stopping it. Often these kinds of messages leave our brains as fast as they enter. But Gates managed to get millions of people talking about Malaria by doing something novel: He released live mosquitos into the TED crowd.
That is the epitome of novelty. At the end of the day, novelty is what causes us to pay attention to and/or spread messages. Our brains are built to notice and remember things that are new, and great writers harness that biological impulse to craft stories that people can’t help but talk about.
“Neuroscience says that novelty tells your nervous system that something is important—at a precognitive level,” Baer says. He gives the example of the fading excitement around a new hardwood floor in your house. At first, you appreciate the newness, but after a few days, a brand new floor simply becomes a floor, something you put your feet on without noticing. On the other hand, a cooking class provides a continual dose of novelty—every week you explore new ingredients and new recipes, so your brain remembers more and you have more fun.
“You don’t want to be the hardwood floor; you want to be the cooking class to your readers,” Baer says.
For your writing to get noticed in the content storm of the Internet, I believe you need at least two of the above three elements. A novel story that’s hard to get through and impossible to relate to is unlikely to become the subject of your next cocktail hour conversation. A relatable story that everyone’s heard and that takes forever to tell is the last thing someone wants to talk about—much less listen to. And a fast story that’s not new or relatable is uninteresting at the very most.
Great writers—on the web, at least—are masters of all three. Lately, I’ve been using FIN as a checklist for every post that I write. It’s the sort of stuff that’s always been conscious of, but now when I finish writing a story, I like to specifically ask myself: Is this novel? Is this relatable? and Is this going to be easy for my audience to get through?
And that’s the beauty of the FIN mnemonic, when you think about it. You may forget most of the words in this post, but with those three letters, you’re now equipped to remember—and spread—this very message.
So how about a share or two?