Thirty million Americans struggle with basic reading tasks. That’s about 10% of the U.S. population. I have no idea what the statistics are for people who struggle with writing, so let’s just say it’s 90% based on my totally unscientific study of people who tell me they’re not good writers.
I say this because we’re all taught terrible writing habits during school. Actually, we’re not even taught writing habits, we’re taught one framework—the five-paragraph essay. The SPAM of writing: canned, tasteless, and unrecognizable in the normal world.
As a former high school English teacher, I’ve read my fair share of terrible, unengaging writing. Fortunately, now that I work in marketing, that’s all changed!
Just kidding. Most of it’s still terrible. In fact, I’m guilty of contributing some from time to time. (Don’t judge me!)
Because we hang onto these old ideas about writing—or because we suffer from confidence issues from that time we wrote a killer essay, but Mr. Johnson disagreed and put a BIG FAT F on the top of the page in red ink crushing our dreams—we struggle to create writing worthy of being read.
A music teacher once asked me if ever sang. I told her I couldn’t. She looked at me, dead serious, and said, “Everyone can sing. Some people just practice more than others.”
Writing engaging content is a lot like that. Everyone has something to say; it’s just a matter of practicing the right things.
If you don’t have anything to say, I can’t help you.
But if you do, and you’re just worried about whether anyone will want to read it (engage), well then—now we’re cooking.
In one of my favorite writing books, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott gets some writing advice from her father,
“Do it every day for awhile. Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.”
Here are a few strategies for increasing engagement that cut across every swath of writing from emails to blog posts to white papers (yes, even white papers). With a little practice, you’ll have your audience thinking deeply, getting all the feels, and maybe even learning something—you know, being engaged.
But before I share, let’s get one thing clear…
How Do You Define Engagement?
The truth is, there are lots of ways to define engagement. What’s most important is that everyone in your organization agrees on that definition and how you’ll measure it.
At the very least, I’d focus on a couple of areas: Are people doing what you’re asking them to do (converting) and how long are they spending with your content (session duration)? Many people focus on time on page, but that can be deceiving, so be careful.
To achieve this definition of engagement, focus on quality, simple stories, and readability. No single solution always applies, but here are three strategies I use to keep people’s attention.
Quality, Empathy, & Telepathy
Admittedly, quality is subjective. Creating quality content begins with a deep understanding of your audience. Buyer personas are part of this, but to really understand your audience, you’ve got to talk with them. Understanding leads to empathy. Like writing itself, empathy is a learned skill. It requires you to listen. Then, you have to imagine yourself in that customer’s shoes.
That’s right, we’re talking about using your imagination. Something you probably haven’t considered in a long time. At the end of the day, that’s all empathy really is. You imagine what it’s like to be that person, feel what they’re feeling, make the decisions they have to make, solve the problems they have to solve. Not as you would but as they would, knowing what you know about them.
Now that you’re walking in their skin, use words that will be familiar to your readers. Look for patterns. Recognize how they describe things. Repeat these words back to them. Mimicry is scientifically related to charm, persuasion, and positivity—all key aspects of engagement.
Lastly, use a bit of telepathy to anticipate what’s next. What will readers do with this information? What’s the most logical next step? How can you anticipate or guide their future behavior? Everything you write should have a call to action. Tell people, explicitly, what to do next. Sign up for a newsletter. Leave a comment. Opt-in. Leadership begets engagement.
Tell a Simple Story with a Point of View
Once you’re speaking their language and walking in their skin, tell a good story. The best stories are simple, straightforward, and have a point of view. Think of Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers Grimm, or Nursery Rhymes. They’ve lasted for hundreds of years because they’re easy to grasp and remember. Yours should be like that too.
Too much has been made of storytelling in the last few years. You’re not Stephen King (and neither am I), so don’t set those lofty expectations. The best stories are simple. Beginning, middle, end. That’s it.
It should go without saying at this point, but don’t tell stories about your company. Tell stories about your customers. And assume they’re intelligent enough to make the connection between their situation and the story you’re telling. If you have to explain it at the end, go back to the beginning and start over.
And always use active voice. If you’ve forgotten what that means, let me explain: The subject of a sentence should always do something. It’s the difference between “The boy hit the ball” and “The ball was hit by the boy.” Passive tense victimizes your subject. Your customers aren’t victims. Treat them accordingly.
While being one of the most obvious ways to increase engagement, readability is a challenge because it goes against everything we’ve been taught. I hope, at this point, everyone knows the way we read online is completely different than the way we read other mediums. Mobile adds an additional layer to this. Yet, surprisingly, I still see people writing large chunks of text.
Sometimes, we conflate long sentences and paragraphs with greater depth, higher quality, and more intellect. I’d argue the opposite. People who can’t write shorter, more concise versions of original drafts either 1) fail to fully grasp their topic of choice, 2) are purposefully trying to confuse the reader, or 3) don’t know how to edit properly.
I like to use what I call the Hemingway Rule—which comes from Ernest Hemingway’s terse, to-the-point, no-frills style:
If you’re following the Hemingway Rule, you’ll create natural breaks in the text. I rarely write a paragraph longer than three sentences. This means you absolutely can have a single sentence serve as a paragraph (despite what Mr. Johnson said!). In fact, you should do this from time to time, simply because it entices readers to keep moving through the text.
These breaks also allow a reader’s brain to assemble the previous pieces, make meaning, and catch up to your eyes. Comprehension is key to engagement. Give people time to digest your ideas.
In addition to all this, be informal, speak casually, use fragments, and start sentences with “and” and “but.” Mr. Johnson be damned.
BONUS: Read. And Get Outside Your Comfort Zone
Science shows that one of the best ways to improve your writing skills is to read. If you want to write engaging texts, read. Read often. Read widely. Commit to ten pages a day. Or 30 minutes. Turn off your phone and your computer and crack a book.
Read sci-fi. Read your favorite political wonk. Read magazine articles about Kanye. Read young adult fiction. Read a graphic novel.
As you do, keep a list of words, phrases, and descriptions you like or that stand out to you. Don’t over rationalize. If you like it, write it down.
I once heard an author on NPR describe a character’s hands as “gnarled tree roots.” I’ve never forgotten that.
The biggest challenge with creating engaging writing is getting past some of your deepest beliefs about writing. High school English teachers do a number on us by not allowing us to experience a variety of writing styles. Like that singing teacher, writing well isn’t a matter of ability; it’s a matter of conscious practice.
Whether you’re writing an eBook, an email series, or a blog post, use these strategies to help overcome your own tendencies for bad writing. Go ahead, break Mr. Johnson’s rules. When you do, you’ll break through to your readers too.