This guest post is by Ali Luke of Aliventures.
You’ve probably heard that you should put some of your personality into your blogging. And you know that stories are a great way to engage readers—to capture not just their attention, but their hearts as well.
Perhaps some of your favorite bloggers are people like Naomi Dunford or Johnny B. Truant or Pace and Kyeli Smith—folks who write from the heart, who are open and honest, and who make you feel that you know them. You want your blog to be like that too.
The problem is, it’s easy to get personal stories wrong. And a blog that’s too “me me me” can be a total turn-off for readers. They might not even read a full post before getting bored and clicking away.
Readers are put off by…
1. Stories that have no point
If you can’t think of what to post about, don’t just ramble about your life story or write about your day. Just as with any blog post—or any piece of writing—readers will expect some structure and a clear message from your post.
2. Badly-written stories
Of course, you don’t have to be the next Shakespeare in order to be a successful blogger—but you do need to be able to write. If your writing itself isn’t very good, then readers aren’t likely to stick around. Conversely, a brilliantly-written piece can be incredibly engaging, even if the subject matter doesn’t seem very promising.
3. Stories that leave no room for the reader
So often, bloggers write personal stories that seem to be nothing but a self-indulgent exercise. These stories might be of interest to the blogger’s own friends and family—but there’s no reason for anyone else to care. The reader feels ignored and sidelined: the story is “me me me” with no acknowledgement of the reader.
The biggest problem with your stories is that:
No-one cares about you … yet
When a new reader comes to your blog, they probably know very little about you. They might have clicked on a retweeted link, they might have found you via a search engine—chances are, they don’t even know your name.
Of course, personal stories are a great way to help readers start to care—but not if you hit them with too much, too fast. Your reader doesn’t just want to know about you: they want to feel a sense of connection. They want to know that you’re someone who they can like, or admire, or learn from.
How to use stories the right way
If you suspect that your own stories might be putting readers off rather than drawing them in, here’s how to turn things around.
1. Start with a mini-anecdote
A short anecdote can be a great way to grab attention at the beginning of a post—so long as you don’t drag it on for too long. You’ll ideally either want something so unusual that it grabs the reader’s interest, or so typical (for your audience) that the reader can feel “that’s me”.
(You might want to return to the story at the end of the post too.)
How to do it
Here’s an example:
“I wake up, hit snooze on my alarm clock, and lie in bed. The alarm goes off again—and now I know I absolutely have to get up. I’m frazzled, and know I’m going to need to rush to make it to work on time. I scarf down my breakfast and brush my teeth, trying to juggle priorities in my head because I don’t think I have time to look at my todo list—I know I’m already behind schedule.”
(From The 10 Minute Difference Between Stress and Happiness by Sid Savara.)
2. Break your story into chunks
In some types of blogging, you may have a long, in-depth story to tell. Perhaps you’re a mommy or daddy blogger writing about your kids’ early life, or you’re a personal development blogger telling the story of how you screwed things up in college.
Don’t try to tell your entire story as one epic post. Break it into a series – and make each part have a clear central point.
How to do it
On The Simple Dollar, a personal finance site, Trent tells his story in a series called “The Road to Financial Armageddon”:
“The best place to start is the beginning. I was born into poverty, a family in which both my mother and father had been raised in poverty, too. Both of my parents were used to the concept of living from payday to payday, never having enough saved for themselves to survive more than a week or two. To some degree, this was out of necessity; there was often not enough money to put food on the table.”
(From The Road to Financial Armageddon #1: The Earliest Mistakes by Trent Hamm.)
3. Put yourself on the reader’s side
(e.g. Writing about financial difficulties, early career problems: “I’ve been through it too.”)
As bloggers, we’re often writing about situations which we’ve been through or problems we’ve overcome. We may well have come by our knowledge the hard way. For instance:
- If you’re blogging about parenting tips, you might have done a few things wrong with your own kids.
- If you’re blogging about marketing, you might have had a disastrous launch or two in the past.
- If you’re blogging about gardening, your early attempts may have made you seem a little less than green-fingered.
Your readers are coming to your blog to learn how to solve problems, yes—but if you present yourself as an all-knowing guru, people may be put off. Readers want to know that they’re not alone, so help them by sharing stories that say “I’ve been through this too.”
How to do it
Here’s how to share the less-happy bits of your story so readers can identify with your feelings:
“I had asked for feedback, and at the time, I sincerely meant it, or thought I did. The problem is, once I consider something finished, I can’t imagine anyone’s honest feedback being anything but “Stellar! Best thing I’ve ever read! I’ve been waiting for this all my life!” So this feedback, even though it was constructive and mostly positive, crushed me. As fried as I was by then, I couldn’t be see anything clearly. I was devastated, ready to quit writing and retreat to my cubicle.”
(From Writing an eBook: How to Get Started (and Finish!) by Cara Stein.)
4. Tell an embarrassing story
Sites like “Learn From My Fail” are popular for a reason: we like to read other people’s embarrassing stories. They give us a laugh—and often lift our mood (“at least I didn’t do that!”) They can even provide valuable learning experiences.
You don’t want to overdo it and come across as a bumbling idiot – but occasionally admitting to something embarrassing or talking about a failure can make you more human in your readers’ eyes. They can also gain sympathy.
(Just be careful not to write about any current failures. “My total business fail last week” isn’t likely to win you many new clients…)
How to do it
Here’s an example (with great use of dialogue, too):
“Hi, uh …. Mr. Bruise is it?” No. 1 said.
“Yes, it’s actually Bruce, but thank you, I …”
“All right, what do you have for us today?” No. 3 said.
He was looking down, rustling some outstandingly important paperwork into some sort of crucial order.
“Yes, thank you, I, I’ll be doing a short monologue from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and another from Sean Penn’s turn in Carlito’s Way.”
I heard one of them groan under his breath.
(From Why Everyone Hopes You’ll Be the Hero by Robert Bruce.)
5. Make sure your story teaches the reader something
Funny or heartwarming or engaging stories are all well and good—but what readers really want is an “aha!” moment. They want your story to teach them something new, or to shed new light on something they already know.
How to do it
You don’t have to be explicit in spelling out “the moral of the story”, but if it works for Naomi Dunford…
“Moral of the Story: Marketing Begins In Product Development.
When you are building your product, think about the stupidest person you’ve ever met. That person is your customer. Think about what problems they could have with your product.
When you are a wine producer, you want your customers to be well aware of how much wine they have on hand at all times. (Please pardon the pun.) You do not want them at home, trying to bust a move on their wife, setting up candles and massage oils and doing whatever people without kids do, just to find out they’re out of wine.”
Are your stories working for you, or do you need to give more value to the reader? I’d love to hear about your experiences with telling stories, whether they worked or not—the comments are open!
Ali Luke is a writer and writing coach, specialising in helping bloggers to take their writing to the next level. Her ebook The Blogger’s Guide to Effective Writing was described by Colin Beveridge as “full of the tricks the pros use so that bloggers like me can put together posts and series that look halfway competent.” Read what other bloggers said about it here.