In the work I do in helping writers connect with readers and grow their platforms, I find that there is often this pressure to “go viral.” To identify a tactic that reaches the most people with the minimum effort. And sure, that’s definitely useful. But that can also be elusive.
Today I want to talk about simple ways to engage those who you hope to connect with: readers, writers, booksellers, podcasters, librarians, teachers, literary festival organizers, and so many others.
Recently a friend of mine shared a photo on Facebook of two bags of candy — it looked something like this:
As she walked onto a plane for a flight, she gave these to the crew. She said that by the end of the flight, she was thanked by every member of the crew individually. She was following the advice she remembered someone telling her of, “be the person to make someone else’s day.”
I think people tend to complicate this advice. When we consider how we can get the attention of readers or other authors or followers or subscribers, we feel we have to emulate one of those viral videos where we present someone with a rare first edition of a book they love, or a super personalized gift of some sort. Or we brainstorm some kind of “lead magnet” as a barter for someone to join our newsletter list. Or we think we have to do this clever skit or dance on TikTok. But often, what people want is much simpler.
My friend probably spent $10-15 on this candy, and that was enough to make the day of one hard working flight crew. It also made my friend feel good, which made me feel good. She has been going through a lot in the past year, and it has been absolutely inspiring to see how she is thriving amidst the unexpected.
In the work I do with writers, we focus on how to connect with readers and those who celebrate books like those they wrote. What I find again and again is the value of keeping things simple. Of showing up as a human being. And of starting with empathy.
So often, we think it is impossible to stand out. That there are too many newsletters already, too many podcasts, too many social media updates, too many online events. Now with the concept of AI writing books, perhaps you worry there will simply be too many books. Maybe you even think to yourself: “Besides, aren’t there so many other people who are more well established than I am? How can we hope to get attention for me or my writing.”
But it’s actually rather easy. This is the “trick,” so to speak when you want to connect with others:
Be someone who truly sees the other person.
That’s it. If you do that, you are giving people what they dream of. For someone else to recognize us. To check in on us. To care about what we care about. So often in our daily lives, this rare. Another friend shared this quote not long ago:
“Who checked on you today? Exactly. Take care of you.”
The way I translated it is that while each of us may have people in our lives who love and care for us, often they are busy with their own responsibilities and worries. When that happens, you should make time for attending to your own mental and physical health, because you can’t wait for everyone else to do that for you.
So what if you are the person who checks in on, or celebrates, others? Let me give you an example, which also explains the concept more:
I remember hearing an interview with Brandon Stanton, who created Humans of New York. What is that? Basically Brandon walks around on the street, asks random people if he can take their photo, and then asks them questions. The answers he gets are often incredibly deep and meaningful stories about someone’s life. He has 17 million Facebook followers, 13 million Instagram followers, is the author of 5 books, and has shared more than 10,000 stories from forty different countries.
In the interview, podcast host/author Tim Ferriss, wanted to understand how Brandon got people to share these powerful stories from a stranger in just 30 or 60 minutes. Tim asked about the questions Brandon asked, assuming that this was the key to getting such great responses. What was so different about the questions Brandon asked? This was his reply:
“It’s not the questions. I have about three or four entry questions that I use. “What’s your biggest struggle?” “How has your life turned out differently than you expected it to?” “What do you feel most guilty about?” But really, the planned questions are just springboards into a conversation. And how you get to that deep place with a person is absolute presence. It’s being 100 percent there. You’re not thinking in the framework of an interview. You’re not looking at a list of questions. You’re not thinking about your next question. You’re not thinking about how this person fits into your idea of them and what you know about them. You’re 100 percent there, and you’re 100 percent listening to them, and your questions are 100 percent coming based on curiosity about what they are telling you and nothing else.”
“People just feel alone. Period… There is this appreciation of being heard that even though I don’t know this guy, this is the first person who has taken such a focused and detailed interest in my problems. And the feeling of having somebody focus so intensely not on the sports teams you like or the music you like or any of the other trivial things that we get asked on a daily basis but these real things that you’re struggling with and maybe not even on the top of your mind but in the back of your mind that you’re not even really bringing to the surface, being heard like that is such a validating thing that that’s why people always share.”
“It really works because the people on the street that I meet are so thankful to have somebody really listen to them that in that bubble, in an hour and a half where I’m sitting with a stranger on the street, this magic happens where they’re willing to let me in to a space in their mind or their soul or whatever it is that they don’t really let other people into. And it’s that place that I think connects with so many people.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Brandon describes this as a skill that you develop, this ability to listen and be present with someone. This is a power we all have. Simply to see each other. To recognize what we are each trying to create. It doesn’t require a “like” a “follow” or a “subscribe.” It is just showing up as a human being, and validating who someone is and what they are hoping to share with others.
So on a practical level, how can you find simple ways to connect without doing what Brandon did? Let’s make it really clear prompt: how can you even connect with another writer who publishes in the same genre/topic as you? Some ideas:
- Go to the bakery section of the foodstore and have them print a cake with an image of the book cover from an author whose book you are excited about or loved. This can be a brand new book, or it can be a book that came out years ago. Post a photo of it and tag them on social media. Every author wants to see their book cover on a cake.
- Spend a week on social media celebrating someone’s book. Again, this doesn’t have to be a brand new book. What author wouldn’t want to see a reader celebrating their book two years after release date?
- Buy 5 copies of someone’s book and give them away. Or create a video of you walking into a big bookstore, and turning that person’s book cover facing out on the shelf.
- Send a gratitude email or direct message, telling someone how much their book meant to you.
- Share a photo of you with someone’s book that you liked.
If you are thinking, “But Dan, I don’t want to do this for another author, I want readers to do these things for me!” Then I want to encourage you to learn by doing. If you want readers to celebrate your books in these ways, then model that behavior first. It also allows you to learn what it feels like to do these things. A few months back I wrote a blog post about the 10+ steps it takes to post a book review online. A lot of writers told me that it really opened their eyes — they had always thought of asking someone to post a book review as this super easy task. But it’s not, it takes 10+ steps to do so. If you want others to post reviews for your books, then get really good at the process yourself, because that will help you help them.
Don’t think of this work as a transaction, where you are giving something with the specific goal to receive something back in return. Instead, think of it as a way of being, and through that, how you become known.
Want examples of this? Go look at how these writers share and engage with others. Spend a week looking at their Instagram Stories or Tweets:
- Debbie Ridpath Ohi
- Janae Marks
- Jasmine Darznik
- Andrea Bartz
- Julian Winters
- Jessica Strawser
- Jarrett Lerner
- Nikki Grimes
- Meera Lee Patel
- Marcía Lynn Paul
- Colby Sharp
I started this post with a photo of two bags of candy. When I think about my friend buying candy for the plane crew, I can imagine 100 thoughts that could have stopped her from doing so”
- “Candy is such a common commodity, why would they appreciate a few bits of chocolate. If I really wanted to make their day, I should buy cupcakes. But those are $4 each, I can’t afford that for the entire crew.”
- “I’ll bet they already have snacks on the plane.”
- “What if they think I’m weird?”
- “I know people are rushing to get on the plane, I shouldn’t hold them up by pausing to give out bags of candy.”
- “I’m already so stressed out when traveling, why don’t I just go listen to a podcast instead of spending time waiting in line to buy candy?”
- “This airline is already charging me so much, why am I spending another $15 on it?”
- “I should include a thank you card. But I don’t have time to go buy one. I should just forget the whole thing.”
- “Maybe they will think I want preferential treatment. I don’t! I’d better not give out this candy, they will just think I want something in return.”
These are the same kinds of things I know writers consider every day to convince themselves not to make the effort to share or connect. But I want to encourage you to create. To share what you create. To connect with others in simple ways. And to do so with a sense of empathy. Instead of considering ROI (return on investment) and vying for virality, simply ask yourself (as my friend did), what would make someone’s day?