When Microsoft released Windows 10, they did an experiment. Instead of a boring blue screen with the Microsoft logo at the start-up, they introduced a lock screen. The lock screen is a display setting that shows breathtaking high-resolution pictures of places or natural phenomenon and some words to entice the readers to click the link. It was one of Microsoft’s strategies to get more traffic on its search engine.
Their strategy worked. Millions of people kept lock screen as a default screen saver and started clicking the link to learn more about the beautiful places introduced through a humble screen saver.
Microsoft had figured out what their readers wanted.
What do readers want?
Today’s readers are savvy. They read a lot. That means they know a lot. They get frustrated with the poor quality writing.
They want to consume a lot. But they are time-poor. An article needs to be worthy of their time and written in a way so that they can consume quickly and still get impacted by it.
When they select an article to read they want the article to do three things simultaneously. To entertain them, to educate them, and to inspire them.
It is no easy feat but we writers need to rise to the challenge.
When they start writing online, many writers (including me) have no idea what readers are looking for.
When I started writing, I was primarily writing for myself. The writing was a way to clear my thoughts and to become better at expressing myself. Since no one was reading my work, I didn’t have to think about entertaining, educating, or inspiring with my words. But as I grew as a writer and wanted to share my writing, I just embarked on it without much consideration whether my writing is suitable for consumption.
It took me a lot of observation and an article writing course to bring my article useful and entertaining for my readers.
How can you do that too?
Here are three ways:
- Entertain them with stories
- Educate them with information
- Inspire them with examples.
1. Entertain Them with Stories
Stories are a great way to entertain the readers and get the point across in a light way. Stories give a break from heavy reading. Readers might forget the advice you might give them through your article, but they rarely forget the stories. Stories get itched on their psyche. It is not an accident that all religious teaching happens through stories.
My father ran a secretarial college. And one of his students was a conman.
Back in Mumbai, where I grew up, the majority of secretaries were women and Catholic. Steve, the conman, was from another religion. Like most conmen, he had different aliases, and when he joined my father’s college, he wasn’t Steve. Instead, he called himself Sadashiv.
As we learned later, this conman was very thorough. He would go through a complete transformation where he’d fall in love with a girl, then convert to her religion. And even change his name to a more suitable “Catholic name”. They’d then get married, start up a joint bank account and all would be well for about a year.
One day his new wife and her family would wake up to find “Steve” had disappeared.
During that first year of marriage, Steve would create an enormous level of trust, and then once he had his plan in order, he’d decamp with money, jewellery and all sorts of valuables. The only reason my father found out his modus operandi was because he called my father from jail, saying that he’d been framed.
When my father went to post bail, he was informed that Steve or Sadashiv had many aliases. He always used the letter S, when coming up with names. And he’d been in jail many times before. The story was always the same. He was an impostor and certainly no beginner.
2. Educate them with Information
There is a reason “How To” articles and books are doing so well for decades now. Readers need to learn to do things and articles are a great way to start. A time-poor reader will start with articles to get some basic understanding of a topic and then move on to books to build a deep understanding.
Educational articles are written in form of listicles just like this one. They could be long (I have seen listicles with thirty points or more) or short (like this article which has just three points).
I believe three to seven is a good number.
My personal favorite is three points. Three points give you enough space to include substance and are not too long for the readers to consume in one read. Seven is my upper limit. I wrote an article Seven Tips To Write With Style which got curated. Anything above that and we start losing the readers.
When writing educational articles, write it as if you are explaining to a single reader. That will make your writing personal and understandable. If you write for masses, you don’t connect with anyone.
You don’t have to be an authority on the topic. You can provide beginner level information. But whatever you write you need to understand it well so that you come across as someone who knows her topic well.
3. Inspire them with examples
Examples bring the point home. They also make it easy for the readers to understand what you are saying.
In the article, The Expert Generalist: Why the Future Belongs to Polymaths Zat Rana gives the examples of Aristotle, Galileo, and Da Vinci to make a case for gaining breath of knowledge as compared to the depth of knowledge.
Learning itself is a skill, and when you exercise that skill across domains, you get specialized as a learner in a way that someone who goes deep doesn’t. You learn how to learn by continuously challenging yourself to grasp concepts of a broad variety. This ironically then allows you to specialize in something else faster if you so choose. This is an incredibly valuable advantage.
Aristotle practically invented half a dozen fields of study across philosophy. Galileo was as much a physicist as he was an engineer when he helped kick-start the scientific revolution. Da Vinci might have been even more famous as an inventor than an artist if his notebooks were ever published.
A reader of Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage would find that between 1971 and 1972, there were some 2500 politically motivated bombings in the United States.
In the pages of Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, they’d find an eerily modern jockeying between an ascendant power and a dominant power and the mistakes made by both.
Reading Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days, his first-hand account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, would reveal the life and death calculations of nuclear powers, each looking to save face and neither looking to actually blow up the world.
In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a reader might relate to the rather ageless angst of the next generation trying to find its meaning and purpose in the world.
In Anne Frank’s diary we hear of the timeless plight of the refugee, we are reminded of the humanity of every individual (and how societies lose sight of this) and we are inspired — even shamed — to see the cheerful perseverance of a child amidst far worse circumstances than ours.
In Stefan Zweig’s biography of Montaigne we get the unique perspective of a man turning away from the chaos of the world to examine the life of a man who turned inward, away from the chaos of the world some 400 years earlier.
Although it is not easy to come up with these examples, as a writer, it is our job to research before sitting down and writing the article. Many writers have swipe files where they collect information that interest them. This way, they have already done their research before they sit down to write.
There you go, you now have three basic ingredients the readers want in an article.
Combine all three and you will have a winning recipe.
Writing is like cooking. We have a lot of ingredients to work with. But with time we learn that each recipe has basic ingredients (without which the recipe can’t work) and the secondary ingredients (nice for variation, to change the flavor, taste, texture, etc.). Just like a cake recipe can’t work without eggs, butter, and self-rising flour, an article doesn’t work without stories, information, and examples.
It might sound hard initially but with practice, it becomes second nature just like baking a cake.
Remember when you first time baked a cake, how long it took you and how much mess you made. And it still fell flat in the middle. But with the time you got better.
Dabble. Play around with the ingredients. Repeat the process.
Every writer on the planet has learned it this way. J K Rowling, Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, or any good writer were not born with writing genes. They learned with constant practice.
Keep in mind, talent is nothing more than reducing the errors and eventually eliminating them.
Many writers are already doing it. Read the work of your favorite writers and learn from them.