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Hoping to Grow Your Audience? Focus on Narratives.

If you are a writer or creative professional, narratives matter when you consider developing an audience. For many people: narratives are our we define ourselves, it is how we filter the world, it is how we search for meaning. Narratives are the stories we tell ourselves. Two key aspects to consider:

  1. Narratives define the world in ways we are comfortable with, or that we desire. Note: these are not always the same thing. Some people experience the world with the narrative that “people are trying to rip me off.” Therefore, every experience is filtered through this narrative, and they are immediately skeptical when shopping or negotiating. And this can lead to some less than ideal circumstances: a mechanic telling that person that their tires are completely bald and that we are heading into icy-road season. The person with the narrative of “everyone is trying to rip me off,” may make the decision that this mechanic just wants money and he won’t have his tires changed, potentially risking the safety of himself, anyone driving in his car, and anyone driving on the road near him. And the interesting thing about the power of his narrative is that he will feel GREAT about the decision to not get his tires. To him, his keen awareness allowed him to not get ripped off like some other sucker.
  2. Narratives are signals that someone is “like you,” someone you may want to talk to. Consider if you are in a foreign city and meet a random stranger at a cafe who happens to be a huge fan of your favorite sports team. Boom, instant conversation.

How can you use narratives to engage others in meaningful ways? Some ideas:

Focus not on being descriptive, but on what you want people to feel. One example of this is blog headlines. On Chuck Wendig’s Facebook feed last week, he pointed out the lengths that some websites (Upworthy and Buzzfeed) go to pull on your heart strings. Some examples of these headlines:

  • Clear Your Next 10 Minutes Because This Video Could Change How Happy You Are With Your Entire Week (Upworthy)
  • This Stunning “Breaking Bad” Artwork Will Make You Miss It All Over Again (Buzzfeed)
  • A Group Of First-Time Filmmakers Just Created Something Incredible (Upworthy)
  • 19 Bejeweled Skeletons That’ll Blow Your Mind (Buzzfeed)

Notice how I didn’t actually link to these stories – could you have resisted clicking?
🙂

Headlines like these focus not just on describing something, but on what you will FEEL when you do so. Chuck’s original Facebook post had some hilarious examples of how overboard these types of headlines can go. But what I like about them is that they are one way to consider how something as short and simple as a blog headline can align to a narrative that you share with your audience.

Let’s say you just did a reading of your book at a library to a group of kids. You may write a blog post about it with one of these descriptive headlines:

  • Reading of My Book at Darien Public Library
  • Book Tour Update: Northeast
  • Thanks to the Good Folks in Darien
  • Photos From My Darien Library Reading.

What is the narrative here? You did something that the blog readers weren’t at to experience, and now you are sharing it like a slideshow of vacation photos? That’s not very engaging. But clearly, there are elements of a narrative here that your audience would likely respond to:

  1. They are likely happy you are sharing your work, and perhaps finding success with it.
  2. They likely love libraries.
  3. They likely love kids and the idea of promoting reading and stories to them.

So how can we craft a headline that digs into these narratives more quickly? Some ideas:

  • The look on these kids faces is why I love doing library readings.
  • For 30 minutes on a random Tuesday in Darien, CT, magic happened at this library.
  • One little girl said the most amazing thing to me at last night’s book reading.

Do these go too far in clawing for an emotional response? I don’t know, only Chuck Wendig knows that. 🙂 But I would bet that they get to the heart of your experience at the library event a bit better, and cut to the biggest reasons someone would want to read about it. You can do this in so many ways – perhaps by not describing the event of the book reading, but zooming in on one tiny aspect of it – one story or experience that is representative of a compelling narrative.

These sample headlines obviously require you to not just write a headline differently, but write the blog post differently. They change the story of the experience in very basic ways. How do you do this? Well, Ze Frank recently shared a video describing tactics he uses to find compelling ideas for the videos he creates and the stories he shares:

Another way to consider using narratives:

Consider how you want to engage with people that does NOT require them to buy, read or promote your book. In other words: what ELSE would you and your ideal readers talk about if you were at a barbecue, cafe, or sitting at the same table at a wedding? Now, the next step: consider how these things relate to what you love to write about. For instance, does your book focus on the story of an underdog who was abused by co-workers, and came out a hero? If so, what is the crux of the emotion that readers feel when they finish reading your book, or at key points throughout it? How does your story align with the narratives they tell themselves about the world?

And then… how can you share that same expression in various ways in your social media feeds.

So maybe instead of promoting your book all the time, you are promoting the ways your book makes people feel. EG: You find underdog stories and share them. Because that is one of the reasons your readers love your work. It is why they are interested in you as an author – you cut to that feeling so well in your book. It is a narrative they walk around every day looking for. It is a feeling they want to experience more often.

Maybe your readers want to feel romantic joy through your stories. What else can you share every day that gets them close to that feeling?

Here are two more examples of how a creative work can align to the narratives an audience looks for:

When the movie The Social Network came out, I heard a lot of reactions from adults that it was a movie that showcased a selfish person making selfish decisions for his own gain. This was used as a way to describe what they felt was wrong with the movie.

But then I started hearing reviews and feedback from people who were younger, and some of their reaction was different. They looked at the movie as a hero’s journey – as celebrating someone who didn’t take crap, who wasn’t crushed by the system, who did what he had to do in order to succeed.

Each audience brought their own narrative to the movie, and that affected their experience.

I am a fan of author John Green’s work. Not just his books, but how he has engaged with fans to create other projects including:

  • Supporting social causes
  • Promoting education, with a big focus on history, literature, and (through his brother Hank) science.
  • Raising money for charity
  • Exploring new ways for creative people to earn money from their work that is fair for everyone

And there’s more. But John’s projects tend to get traction because they align to narrative. It is about a shared way of viewing the world, and a shared way of wanting to experience the world. He and the community he is a part of have a catch phrase that defines this narrative: “Don’t forget to be awesome.”

I can write so much more on this topic, but I’m well over 1,000 words now already, and my own personal narrative is telling me to get back to work. What narratives do you look for in the world?

Thanks.
-Dan

  • This is the best article I’ve read about creating an outreach strategy that actually connects with people. You’ve inspired me to think about the narrative of the people who are most likely to be interested in my work: “I’m a citizen of the world. I want to explore new places and cultures, but without sacrificing everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve. I’m not content following other people’s rules and expectations.” I’m thinking about how best to write headlines in a way that touches this core narrative in a way that leads people to say “that’s me” or “this is us.” Thank you.

    • Wow – thank you so much Leslie!
      -Dan

  • Jan O’Hara|Tartitude

    Thank you, Dan. Marketing isn’t remotely intuitive for me, but this explanation makes sense.

    I saw the Ze Frank video last night and marked it as a keeper, as well. Cheers.

  • Trish Johansen

    I loved the content of this newsletter and had to read it all the way through. Thanks Dan

  • Another fascinating post that has me trying to think outside the box, Dan. It also highlights how important knowing who your audience is. I wonder if sometime you’d explore the differences between narrative, anecdote, and storytelling, and the uses of each? Thanks again!

    • That’s a tall order! I’ll give it some thought – thank you Debra!
      -Dan

      • True! It’s probably three posts :). I have a feeling if I go back through your archives, I’ll find the answer.

  • This is my first visit to your site. I really like the tone of this article. It’s very informative, and not at all condescending. Thanks for the tips!

  • Penelope Silvers

    Thought provoking, Dan. Your article gives me new food for thought in crafting my own presentation. I bring my own world view to my books, but how do I share that view with the world?