Back in July, I read an article about an ad agency who wrote a blog post criticizing Zappos over their review process for proposals after theirs didn’t make the final cut. At first blush, this sounds like a story of sour grapes but in reality, it’s much worse. The crux of the argument was that only 5 of the agency’s 25 page proposal were ever reviewed by Zappos, which in their mind was unfair and disrespectful. But as far as I’m concerned, if you’re an ad agency who can’t hook your reader in the first five pages then you’re not very good at your job. So how can this be a lesson for us to more effective communicators?
#1 Own it
The most stunning aspect of this story to me was the shifting of blame from the agency’s failure to deliver a compelling message to the vendor’s laziness. The burden of communication falls on the author. Period. Whether you are crafting a proposal, writing an email, authoring a blog post or designing a presentation, you must take responsibility for crafting a message in such a way that it will engage the reader. Our information-overloaded society leaves precious little time for things that don’t add value. Be respectful of the reader and recognize that if only 20% of your proposal is read, then “It’s not you, it’s me.”
#2 Use catchy titles and subject lines
This may sound obvious but think for a moment about how much thought you really put into the subject line of an email or the title of a presentation. The first step in crafting an effective title or subject is to tell people what they will get out from reading your content. For example, instead of titling your proposal “New Conveyor System Proposal,” try something like “Improving Efficiency and Capacity With a New Conveying Approach.” The first title is pretty typical, but automatically puts your message at a disadvantage by sounding pedestrian at best and a little desperate at worst. The second title makes a promise right out of the gate and sets an expectation that the reader will have something to gain from reading the proposal.
The second step is to use strong, concise words. Try to use words that personalize subject matter, like “you” and “your.” Also think about trying to strike an emotional chord. These can include anger, sympathy, fear, etc… Words like “tips” and “hacks” are examples of words that are emotionally enticing by creating intrigue. Finally, (when applicable) consider the search engine implications of your titles by using keywords “early and often.” This means choosing relevant words that are used as search terms and placing them as early as possible in your title. Then, use them often in your post to reinforce the relevance of the keywords. Just keep in mind that this should not be done at the expense of the humans reading the title and content; keep it readable.
#3 Don’t bury the lead
I’ve read a number of articles that talk about the journalistic tactic of not burying the lead, which means make sure that the most interesting and/or important idea in an article appears early and isn’t “buried” within the story. However, one of the best I’ve read comes from Copyblogger and is titled “What a Bestselling Author Can Teach You About Hooking Your Readers.” This article describes Steven Pressfield’s the lesson of using an “inciting incident,” which he had learned from screenwriter Robert McKee.
Pressfield is quoted as follows:
McKee has given me (and thousands of others) so many valuable lessons, it’d be hard to pick one out, but here it is:
The ‘inciting incident.’ I had never heard this term or focused on this concept before taking his Story Structure class. I did it in my writing, but only on instinct; I had no idea what I was doing. Having that idea crystallized helped me tremendously.
I now ALWAYS ask myself, even in short blog posts, What is the inciting incident? What event or moment gets this story rolling? It’s been a huge help.
If you go back and read the first paragraph of this post, you can see that I used this technique by relating a short story and immediately presenting the central plot. If you’re still reading, I guess it worked!
Again, many of the examples and links I’ve provided address blogs, but the principles apply equally to any other content you’re generating – including (and perhaps especially) emails.
#4 Make it sticky
At the risk of appearing to be a shill for this book, I find myself repeating my recommendation to read the book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Other Die.” Assuming you’ve accomplished the first three steps, the final task is to make your idea(s) sticky, which is to say memorable. “Made to Stick” presents six principles that help make ideas stickier:
- Simple (prioritized, not dumbed down)
- Unexpected (violate a schema, then use curiosity gaps)
- Concrete (use sensory language to hook into multiple types of memory)
- Credible (from authorities and/or statistics and details)
- Emotional (what’s in it for your or appeal to identity)
- Stories (simulation and inspiration)
Being a successful communicator requires that you get readers interested, then hook them so they pay attention, and finally present a memorable message. Have I missed anything?