There’s no one reason why writers write. George Orwell attributed his best writing to political purpose. Joan Didion supposedly wrote to gain better access to her own mind. And James Baldwin described writing as the only possible alternative to the unacceptable option of not writing.
But there’s often one important constant. Many of us write to communicate an idea.
There’s an idea in our heads. We keep thinking about it. It won’t leave us alone.
Soon, this idea can’t be constrained to our own minds. It can’t continue in isolation. It’s never been meant for that. It deserves to be out in the world.
So we write. We write to put that idea into the world.
As Joan Didion insightfully wrote in her essay Why I Write, “there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”
We have our idea. One that will benefit others. We know it will. We just need to tell them about it.
But in today’s world, there’s no shortage of ideas. Ideas, opinions, and viewpoints are in every email, every notification, and every click, overwhelming everyone to the point of desensitization.
So in the interest of retaining our sanity we set up firewalls on new ideas. We become skeptical and ever more judicious over which ideas we allow into our minds.
Whether through writing, design, or any other medium, we now have the opportunity to reach more people than ever before. But those same mediums have made people more selective of the ideas they’ll consider. It’s not enough to have a great idea. We need to help people see that. And it’s often a steep climb.
So what can we do to break through these firewalls? How do we communicate our ideas so they’ll be considered?
Caring and Curiosity
What drives you to click on a link? What compels you to finish reading an article or makes you further research a topic?
After watching and curating hundreds of TED talks, Chris Anderson offered the following explanation on how we capture people’s attention.
“Before you can start building things inside the minds of your audience, you have to get their permission to welcome you in. And the main tool to achieve that: curiosity.”
We need to make people care. We need to make them curious.
When people care, they invest a part of themselves in the topic. It touches their values. Their values reflect their identity. And they become emotionally attached to the topic surrounding our idea.
When people are curious, they have questions they need to answer. They acknowledge the limits of their current knowledge. And new ideas become necessary to answer those questions.
So the question we need to ask is not how do we spread ideas, but how do we make people care. And how do we make them curious.
The Strength of Connection
In Greek mythology, Antaeus was the half-giant son of Poseidon and Gaia, Mother Earth. He had incredible strength as long as he was in contact with the Earth, his mother. But if he was separated from the Earth, he lost his strength. He remained invincible, defeating every opponent he faced. Until Hercules eventually recognized this weakness and defeated him by separating him from the ground.
We draw strength from this same connection. Our strength comes from our connection to the real world. It comes from our connection to our audience. The stronger that connection, the greater our capabilities.
How can we help someone care if we don’t know them? How can we instill curiosity in an audience we don’t understand?
Our ability to influence others and spread ideas is directly related to this connection. And to the level that we invest in building these relationships.
Meet People Where They Are
“Science education is becoming like that guy who always says ‘actually.'” – Tyler DeWitt
In that statement, Tyler DeWitt captured the plight of countless students. As a high school science teacher, Tyler was no stranger to the difficulties of getting kids to appreciate ideas. And he quickly recognized the difficulty of doing so with a boring and incomprehensible text book.
As he was trying to teach students how viruses DNA create copies of themselves inside bacterium, the trusty textbook offered the following definition, “Bacteriophage replication is initiated through the introduction of viral nucleic acid into a bacterium.”
Reading that makes me want to take a nap.
Yes, it’s important to maintain a level of intelligent discourse, especially among experts. But not when we’re trying to connect with teenagers.
If we’re trying to help our audience care, we need to talk to them in language they’ll understand. If we’re trying to instill curiosity, we need to relate the material in a manner that will cause them to want to know more.
People become curious when they have questions they want to answer. And people develop questions when we relate ideas to them in concepts they understand. All of which is predicated on making a strong connection with our audience.
And all of which is contingent on meeting people where they are.
Start with One Connection
“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” – Kurt Vonnegut
Somewhere right now, there’s a marketing executive suggesting, “Hey, we should just make a viral ad campaign.”
As if viral ideas happen because someone in marketing thinks it’s a good idea.
Maybe there’s some secret formula somewhere for how to connect with a million people. I don’t know. But I do know a sure way to fail. And that’s by trying to please those million people from the start.
When Brian Chesky was developing Airbnb, the company had some initial users in New York, but the site hadn’t gained a lot of traction. When he discussed things with Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham, Paul encouraged Brian to go to New York and talk to their first clients. Brian said he’d never be able to keep talking with every client and constantly travel to new cities. To which Paul responded, “That’s exactly why you should do it now.”
What followed was a transformation for Airbnb. Brian and his co-founder, Joe Gebbia, met with Airbnb’s early clients. They talked with people to better understand their concerns. They found out what services they loved. They focused on single stories. Then they worked with these individuals to design perfect experiences.
Only after they had designed perfect individual experiences could they see which parts could be scaled to a larger market.
Most of us tend to focus on the mass market. We’re looking to reach the most people. But unless we can first handcraft our product so that it’s a meaningful experience for one person, we’re not going to create a memorable experience for anyone.
When we try to design products for universal approval, we sand off the edges. Each potential risk brings a potential objection. Risk is traded for reliable. Exciting is traded for familiar. We get something that’s predictable, bland, and non-objectionable. And when was the last time you saw someone get excited about non-objectionable? As Seth Godin tells us in Purple Cow,
“In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failing. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible.”
If we’re aiming for exceptional, we need to ignore the goal of universal popularity. We need to first just focus on being exceptional to one person.
As marketing guru Bernadette Jiwa wisely said,
“Your idea is not a virus and here’s why: A virus doesn’t care who it infects. Everyone is a target.”
A virus spreads because it uses people. It feeds off their strength for it’s own selfish survival.
But survival isn’t our goal. We want our ideas to strengthen people, not weaken them. We’re sharing our ideas for the benefit they’ll have, not so they can merely survive.
If we’re looking to make people care, we need to have an idea that’s worth caring about. Who benefits? Our audience or ourselves?
In Getting Everything You Can Out of All You’ve Got, premier business adviser Jay Abraham replaces the word customer with client. While the rest of us have gone through life using these words interchangeably, Jay points out an important distinction between them:
Customer: A person who purchases a commodity or service.
Client: A person who is under the protection of another.
As Jay explains, when a client is under our protection, we’re looking out for their long-term best interest. Even if they can’t exactly say what that interest is, we’re able to lead them to it. In doing so, we become a trusted adviser. And we gain a client for life.
When a client is under our protection, we consistently put their own interests ahead of our own. We sacrifice our initial return for the long-term benefit.
When our audience is under our protection, we prioritize their long-term benefit over our own. And we only give them ideas that support that.
What’s Your Intention?
When Derek Sivers was running CDBaby, an advertising salesman offered to put banner ads at the top and bottom of the site. He turned them down. For the simple reason that it didn’t put the customers first. As he concisely put it in Anything You Want,
“When you’ve asked your customers what would improve your service, has anyone said, ‘Please fill your website with more advertising’?”
Derek Sivers started CDBaby with the intention of helping his friends sell their music. His company’s mission was focused around providing an ideal distribution system for independent musicians. He recognized this would inhibit growth, but he consistently prioritized his existing connections over developing new ones. Which of course led them to tell everyone. Which led to explosive growth after all.
Derek created connections. Every musician who worked with CDBaby was under his protection. And people recognized the value this brought.
In the always insightful words of Seth Godin, “Services that are worth talking about get talked about.”
How do we treat our audience? Intention shows. It’s everything. Are we looking to genuinely help or are we out to promote our own agenda? Are we publishing articles that we believe will help someone or are we just stoking our own ego?
If you’ve ever read an article on someone’s two-day miracle success story, you can recognize the self-promoting garbage that’s often pedaled. Or if you’ve ever read posts that sensationalize hot-button topics in the hopes of more clicks, you’ve seen the short-sightedness of that community.
Would we rather be the person who makes the quick initial sale or the one who develops a lifelong client?
Intention defines us. Intention determines which ideas are worth spreading.
Stay Grounded. Stay Connected.
Who’s your audience?
Whoever it is, start with one person. Can you picture her?
Can you make her care? What values will cause her to identify with your idea?
Can you make her curious? What questions will inspire her to reach for more knowledge?
Can you relate your idea to her? Can you meet her where she is today?
Can you consistently put her needs ahead of your own? Will your idea benefit her more than you?
When we can answer these questions, we’re able to make connections. We’re able to develop relationships. And we’re able to spread our ideas.