Who is your favorite writer, and why? For the longest time, I had no explainable reason to love David James Duncan’s The River Why, a now-classic that was published when I was a toddler. The narrative doesn’t make much sense, the protagonist is a colorless, mopey, critical downer, and by today’s dramatic standards, the story really doesn’t go anywhere. Worst of all, I’m probably the opposite of the author’s target audience in every way.
But it’s the only book I keep picking up. And it’s the only one that lights up strangers when in some social icebreaker we go round answering which book is our all-time favorite.
As a writer, I finally decided to get to the bottom of it. Why am I drawn to this particular style of storytelling?
That was six years ago. It took that long, but I’m proud to announce I finally know exactly why David James Duncan keeps me coming back: His writing makes me, the reader, feel brilliant. Today I use his tactics in my own content creation, and so can you.
Everyone (and especially every brand) has a message, sure. But coming up with something different, surprising, enlightening, or entertaining can be tricky—especially if you’re pressed to do it regularly. Of all the tips shared here, this one will be the most fundamentally difficult to apply. The other pointers below can be checked off a scorecard. This, though, is a systemic question. Does your organization position itself in the marketplace as a personality with something different to say? Every sentence you write must push against something else—and that can’t just be your direct competitors.
In her popular book The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane says that an attractive, magnetic person with “charisma” masterfully combines warmth and power. “Someone who is powerful but not warm can be impressive, but isn’t necessarily perceived as charismatic and can come across as arrogant, cold, or standoffish,” she writes. On the other hand, “Someone who possesses warmth without power can be likeable, but isn’t necessarily perceived as charismatic and can come across as overeager, subservient, or desperate to please.”
Image attribution: Bing Han
The same is true of compelling prose. Separately, the characteristics of power and warmth can kill your content creation. Combine them, though, and you have the most powerful, magnetic writing style that projects both capability and safety onto your reader.
Your English teachers were on the right track when they taught you the basic elimination of passive voice, but this advice takes it a step further.
In his treatment of the topic, Stephen King manages to embody the actual recommendation. He writes:
“How about this: My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun. Oh, man—who farted, right? A simpler way to express this idea—sweeter and more forceful as well—might be this: My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I’ll never forget it.“
By likening the first sentence to a jarringly crass bodily function, King communicates his dismissal of decorum in favor of the truth. Then, he asks readers to join him by blithely asking, “. . . right?” He’s showing his power but also his warmth. There is no better way to make a memorable connection with readers than to do likewise.
Minus the crudity, perhaps.
Here’s another way to elevate readers. Carefully mix industry-specific words with basic, fourth-grade-level sentences. For example, in a piece titled “Explaining the GDPR to an American” (a headline that should tip you off to the writer’s challenge), Rita Heimes, research director at the International Association of Privacy Professionals, took a break from her complicated explanation to succinctly, simply sum up the definition of personal data under GDPR: “. . . flip the view you might have of personal data the company collects as belonging to the company. Instead think of it as belonging to the person it identifies.”
Another masterful example is Jay’s Wintry Mix, a local-to-me weather enthusiast who combines multiple models to predict snow. Best of all, the guy explains his predictions in a way that makes readers feel like fellow meteorologists instead of mere weekend travel planners, all by intermingling high-level geek-speak with the obvious: “It’s weather.”
Throughout your story, challenge assumptions by bringing them up and questioning them. So far in this piece, I have untaught four common assumptions:
Audiences love to hear the other side of a story. Take a popular philosophy or standard in your industry and humbly build a case against it to spark a lively conversation. Then, throughout, acknowledge the validity of traditional thinking while encouraging your target audience to think differently.
Some of the best storytellers are comedians. Late night greats like David Letterman, Trevor Noah, and Jimmy Fallon are known for unexpected moments of audience participation. They make viewers feel clever by teeing up a current event’s backstory, mentioning what could be concluded, if only . . . well, that part is up to the audience.
“Today, we were planning to talk about how South Korea’s president credited Donald Trump’s aggressive rhetoric for getting North Korea to the negotiating table,” said Trevor Noah in January, “and I was going to be like, ‘Wow, Donald Trump, it looks like you did something right,’ you know? I swear, that’s what we were going to do. And then . . .”
The brief pause let audience members draw their own conclusions, and laughter erupted before Noah could even finish.
As a writer, if you’re confident you’ve earned and kept your readers’ attention, occasionally stopping short of the punchline can be a mutually gratifying way to make a point. Leave occasional conclusions unsaid or partially illustrated, and ask your target audience to weigh in on social or in the comments section.
Today, trying to sound overqualified and uber-smart will backfire. Focusing on audience enjoyment of your content will, instead, have readers coming back. After all, everyone has a weather app. But 34,000 local people tune in to one meteorological hobbyist’s regular updates, instead.
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Featured image attribution: Rakicevic Nenad