The written word is a powerful thing.
Used responsibly, it can educate people about the possibilities that they face, inspire them to improve their circumstances, and empower them to take the necessary actions.
Used irresponsibly, it can cheat and manipulate.
And used badly, it’s just dull, boring, and pedantic.
Which do you want your writing to be?
I’m going to guess that we’re on the same page about wanting our writing to be educational, inspiring and empowering—is that a fair assumption?
There are three main functions of good writing in the context of blogging and copywriting, and those are to attract a reader, to retain that reader, and most importantly, to engage that reader. Let’s explore all three.
Writing to attract: make it sexy
The first thing that you need to do is grab someone’s attention, and you do that by making your writing sexy. I don’t mean sexy in the “appealing to sex” sense of the word (though that certainly works, as in the case of Stacey Herbert’s 5 Things You Should Do To Lose Your Blogging Virginity Like a Slut or Demian Farnworth’s Dirty Little Secret to Seducing Your Readers).
No, I mean sexy as in excitingly appealing; something that just grabs the reader’s attention. You do this by appealing to a core human drive, which is one of the following:
- Drive to acquire: This is about wanting more money, more stuff, and more power. Some examples of content targeting this drive include 18 Months, 2 Blogs, Six Figures and The Skinny on Ways to Fatten Your Wallet Doing Business Online.
- Drive to bond: This is about the need to feel loved and to be connected. How To Refresh Your Passion For Your Online Business both appeal to the drive to bond, as do the examples about sex that I mentioned above. and
- Drive to learn: This is about curiosity, and wanting to know how things work, and what happens next. A couple of examples of posts targeting this drive are Things You Can Learn about Marketing while Sunbathing and The Difference Between Engaged and Engaging.
- Drive to defend: This is about our need to feel safe, secure, and protected from risk and misfortune. Posts that target this drive include Business Failure or Strategic Relocation?: It’s Your Call and .
- Drive to feel: This is about wanting exciting and fulfilling experiences. Posts targeting this drive include Live Each Day Like It Is Your Last and How To Live A Lottery Lifestyle, and sex can be found here as well.
You’ll notice that the sexiest part of the post is the headline—because that is the part that draws people in. You’ll also notice that it’s possible to target several drives with the same headline!
Of course, the selection of which drive to target isn’t random—it’s a function of figuring out who your audience is, and then identifying what their most burning desires and drives are.
Writing to retain: make it useful and entertaining
Getting attention is great, but it’s just the beginning. Once you’ve attracted readers to your content, you’ve got to retain it. There are two ways to do this: you can be useful, or you can be entertaining. Ideally, you should do both.
You make content useful with language, because language is basically the “packaging” that you use to deliver your ideas to the reader. Putting your ideas in a simple bulleted list is one way of doing the packaging, and imparting the information as a story is quite another. One way allows the reader to skim and skip over your content, whereas the other can get them to read, think about, and engage with your information.
Don’t get me wrong—you’ve got to have useful information in there, too. If you’ve got nothing useful to offer—whether it’s an insight, a strategy, a process, or a tool – then no matter how much you “dress it up”, it still won’t have much value. But assuming you do have some good information to share, it’s often the packaging that makes it truly valuable to the reader.
Rather than speaking in generalities, here is the formula that I use to package my own information in guest posts (I try to start each section with a heading):
- Start with a hook. The first thing you need to do is grab the reader’s attention. Start with a short sentence that will pique curiosity, and then build it into an opening that will make people want to keep reading. You can do this by telling a story (they keep reading to see how it ends), by painting a picture of an outcome (they keep reading to learn how you got there), or by being confrontational (they keep reading because they disagree). Keep your paragraphs short, and make sure to hook their attention before the tag.
- Pivot to the problem. First thing after the tag, pivot from your hook, which might only be related to your post’s core concept as an illustrative example, to the problem that lies at the heart of the matter. Explain the problem—what are the symptoms, and what are the outcomes?
- Explain the cause. Next, explain the underlying logic behind the problem—what is causing it, and why do people do things that way? What are the mistaken assumptions that are leading that to happen?
- Share the solution. Having uncovered the mistaken assumptions, and core processes that are causing the problem, you can now share the solution. By now, people should be super-eager to read it!
- Call to action. Don’t end the post without pivoting back to the reader, and their own situation. Ask a question about their experience as it relates to your post. Try to make it a question that is easy to answer—my first post on Copyblogger got tons of comments (208 at last count), mostly because I asked people about their favorite business books, and everyone has one to share!
No joke—I follow this formula 80% of the time when I write, and it works like a charm; my guest posts are consistently commented and shared, and I’ve had repeat appearances on many of the larger blogs that I post for (this is my fourth appearance on ProBlogger).
I want this to be super-concrete, so here are five examples of guest posts that I’ve written following this formula. If you really want to get a sense of how it works, try printing them out and then noting the sections:
- Desperate Housewives on Writing, Storytelling, and Selling on Big Girl Branding
- on E-Junkie
- Write From The Heart: Does Authenticity Really Work? on Write Speak Sell
- The Viral Content Formula That Could Double Your Readership on Think Traffic
- How to Chain an Elephant: Breaking the Shackles We’ve Placed on Ourselves on Steve Scott’s site.
Writing to engage: make it resonate
If you’ve attracted and retained an audience, then you’re definitely on the right track. But let’s face it: the real sign of a successful blog isn’t just traffic—it’s comments and subscribers. Both of these things require that your audience not just like what you’re doing, but engage with it.
So how do you get people to engage?
This is where the science becomes more of an art, and sometimes the best art is created by breaking the rules. I was recently berated about a grammatical error by a commenter who argued that “grammatical accuracy is a prime need when we claim to be authentic writers”.
I disagreed—the line in question, while technically grammatically incorrect, mirrored normal conversational speech patterns, and I don’t think there would have been any confusion in the mind of my readers.
And that is my advice to you: to engage your readers, write as though you were talking.
Here’s how to do it. When you sit down to write, imagine your target reader sitting across the table from you, in rapt attention. Then write exactly what you would say to them. Edit out the “ums” and “aahs”, and make yourself just a little more eloquent than you might otherwise be, but other than that your writing should read like a conversation.
Since I’m a big fan of examples, let’s start with some of my favorite authors: pick up books by Malcolm Gladwell, A.J. Jacobs, and Patrick Lencioni—these are authors whose writing carries you through, even if it’s a whole book about reading the encyclopedia!
Read and enjoy their books, but pay attention to their styles.
Another great place to look for inspiration and lessons is the dialogue of your favorite TV shows. I particularly like the West Wing and Gilmore Girls for this – the dialogue is witty and clever, and does a great job of simplifying and communicating complex ideas. Watch the shows, pick your favorite characters, and try to imagine how they would explain whatever it is that you want to write about.
Attract, retain, and engage
Okay, I think that about covers it—we’ve talked about how to attract the attention of your audience, how to retain them as loyal readers, and how to engage them in a conversation that will grow your audience in size and profitability.
So, what do you think? What part of the attraction, retention, and engagement triad do you find most challenging? Do you have a favorite trick for doing them?
Danny Iny is an author, strategist, serial entrepreneur, and proud co-founder of Firepole Marketing, the definitive marketing training program for small businesses, entrepreneurs, and non-marketers. Visit his site today for a free cheat sheet about Why Guru Strategies for Blog Growth DON’T WORK… and What Does!, or follow him on Twitter @DannyIny.