This is the fifth in a series of articles about business blogging. The foundation of any successful inbound marketing program is remarkable content. It’s the reason why people will pay attention to you and the motivation to hand over their email address and opt into your messages. Downloadable content is certainly an important part of a content marketing strategy but blogging is its lifeblood. The data is irrefutable; more blogging equals more quality traffic and higher conversion rates.
Many people will tell you that what you say is not nearly as important as how you say it. For the sake of argument, let’s say that you have a great, compelling, remarkable blog post you’ve written. If nobody reads it, it’s the proverbial tree falling in the forest that doesn’t make a sound because nobody was there to hear it. Maybe they didn’t read it because the headline wasn’t interesting enough to attract their attention. Or perhaps they took one look at it and thought “TLDR” (too long, didn’t read). Or else they began reading it and gave up after the first couple of paragraphs.
How can you avoid some of these problems?
If you want to reel in an audience, you need to hook them first. And if you want to hook an audience, you need them to bite the hook first. And if you want them to bite the hook, you need the right bait. This three-step process is critical for getting your ideas to spread.
Draw Attention With Compelling Headlines
In content terms, you “bait the hook” using titles. Crafting great titles is a tricky balancing act between brevity and persuasiveness. This is where an understanding of simplicity and restraint pays big dividends.
Creating a simple title means choosing the singular idea that will stimulate curiosity. This curiosity can take many forms. Sometimes, the audience wants to know how the story ends. I wrote a blog post about the nightmarish process that the “Coding Horror” blog lived through when their website was lost and their backup system failed. I chose the title, “Backup Horror,” which is not only a play on words but uses just two words to set the scene; something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong and there was a problem with the backup. The reader wants to know how the story ends.
Sometimes, the title can cause the reader to wonder how the story began. One example is a recent blog post I wrote titled, “Grumpy Old Marketers.” It’s another play on familiar words; grumpy old men. Readers are curious to find out who these folks are and what they did to deserve my admonition.
One other powerful means of creating curiosity through titles is to cause fear. In this regard, I’m talking about a very subtle and often subconscious fear. The most common implementation of this technique is to offer a solution or solutions to a hypothetical problem. The reason this engenders fear is that people immediately worry about what would happen if they didn’t have the information to solve that particular problem if and when they encountered it. I once wrote a blog post titled, “Facebook for Business Demystified.” This taps into fear in a couple of ways. First, if a business isn’t use Facebook they might start to wonder if they should. If they do, they might be fearful that they’ve missed something important want to make sure they haven’t made a mistake in the way they’re using it.
Finally, another technique I employ for titled is juxtaposition. Placing two ideas together that don’t seem to be related drives people nuts. In a way, it’s still about wanting to know the story behind something. When two seemingly unrelated ideas are placed together, we assume there’s a story there that explains how they came together. Another recent blog post I wrote was titled, “The Kakapo Parrot and Business Death Spirals.” This spurs curiosity because readers will wonder how a parrot could possibly have anything to with business death spirals.
The key to a good title is creating a gap. Gaps between expected and observed outcomes cause our brains to release dopamine, which helps create memories and provides a pleasure sensation. Notice how an effective title taps into this reaction by offering the tantalizing possibility of a dopamine response. The larger the gap presented by the title, the greater the potential dopamine reward there is to be collected.
But all the title can really do is hint at the payoff. Once the reader decides to take the bait based on the title, they need to be hooked. How does one do that?
Keep Attention by Not Burying the Lead
Living as we do in an age of information overload, people are faced with many choices for content and lots of demand for their time and attention. As a result, whether we realize it or not we are all constantly performing risk/benefit analyses. “If I risk spending the next five minutes of my life reading this article, what’s the potential benefit I’ll receive?”
“Burying the Lead” means beginning a story with secondary details while postponing the more essential points until deeper into the article. In terms of the risk/benefit, it means that you’re not giving the reader the raw materials they need in order to conduct a proper analysis. They don’t know where you’re going with the article or what the potential payoff is.
Let’s take a look at this article as a case study. Right off the bat, I provide a problem statement. This allows the readers to immediately assess the relevance of the topic to their own situation. Next, it provides a strong hint to what the article’s payoff will be by asking, “How can you avoid some of these problems?” Finally, it makes a promise to deliver three techniques that will help avoid the problem.
Heighten Attention With Storytelling
‘Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.’
– Ed Sabol
There is an old saying in journalism that goes, “If you have a story, tell it. If you don’t, write it.” Storytelling is how you reel in a reader after they’ve been hooked.
I’ve developed a storytelling methodology that was deconstructed from Robert McKee’s book, “Story.” McKee is a former Fulbright scholar who has written numerous television and feature films and also serves as a consultant to major production companies such as Tri-Star and Golden Harvest Films. His Story Seminars are regularly taught to sold-out audiences in film capitals around the world. “Story” is a massive tome that explains the “substance, structure, style, and principals of screenwriting.” The book turned out to be a powerful resource for me and has proven invaluable in blogging and the authoring of my book, Social Media for Engineers and Scientists.
“Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. Boy and girl live happily ever after.” That’s a winning formula for many of the movies we’ve seen. “Boy dates girl, boy marries girl, boy and girl live happily ever after,” isn’t so much of a winning formula. Why not? Because there’s no struggle. No conflict. No quest. Ergo, no story. But before the struggle can start, before the conflict arises, and before the quest can begin there needs to be a catalyst. Something needs to happen that sets the wheels of a story in motion. That catalyst is what McKee refers to as an inciting incident. In his words, “the inciting incident radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.” The rest of the story is about restoring that balance. The protagonist must struggle against conflict during this quest to restore balance.
Once the inciting incident is established, it’s time to move the story along by creating “acts.” I’ve developed a template based on his techniques that I’ve actually turned into a worksheet that is proving to be very effective for crafting book chapters and blog posts. I think if Mr. McKee ever saw it he would either think it was a clever adaptation of his teachings or else lose his lunch – I’m not sure which.
In a nutshell, the template begins with an inciting incident, then contains a series of action/reaction complications centered around a controlling idea that inevitably reach a climax, at which point the closing value of the story (relative to the opening value) is revealed. McKee wrote an entire book on this subject, so this one sentence hardly does it justice. However, keeping this structure in mind can go a very long way towards making your non-fiction writing more compelling and memorable. Find the inciting incident for your subject, and then take the reader on a journey from a life disrupted to some sort of salvation.
If we compare this approach against the traditional, exposition-style of writing that permeates most non-fiction writing, it looks something like this:
Remember that all stories are character driven. Your challenge is to identify the conflict in your story and personalize it for your reader by attaching it to an emotion. The frustration of knowing a control valve PID loop can perform better. The accomplishment of achieving a software certification. The friendships that are formed at your non-profit group’s meetings.
The success of your content marketing isn’t simply based on what you say. In large part, it is based on how you say it. If you’re mindful of the bait, hook and reel analogy, it will go a long way toward making your content worth remarking about.
Read the previous post in this series – Business Blogging 101: What to Write