How to Make an Impact on Your Readers
Four simple steps to more engaging writing
Writing typically isn't hard. With some time and practice, anyone can become a decent writer. The hard part, however, is becoming a successful writer. Every writer dreams of getting to the point where people notice his or her work, comment on it, and share it with others. For some, this actually does happen. But for most aspiring writers, this is a pipe dream.
But it doesn’t have to be. Making an impact on your readers — influencing them, inspiring them, challenging them — doesn’t have to seem so hard. In fact, the process is very simple. It just requires some planning.
The following are four essential steps you need to do to make an impact on your audience through your writing. These steps work with any type of writing: creative writing, business writing, journalistic writing — you name it. So no matter what you want to write, you can use this to influence your audience.
Excited? Let’s get started.
STEP 1: ASSESS YOUR AUDIENCE’S WORLDVIEW
The first step to influencing your audience through your writing is understanding how your audience thinks and feels. In other words, assessing your audience’s worldview. Your readers will make their decisions based off their worldview — what they believe in and how they perceive their world.
One simple strategy I use to assess my audience’s worldview is what I call the “Three Latitudes Model.” The model is very easy to implement and only requires a few minutes to do.
To start, get out a pen and paper (or word processor if you prefer) and draw three columns. The first column will be titled “Acceptable,” the second column will be titled “Unacceptable,” and the third column will be titled “Neutral.” Above the three columns write a title you can give your audience. This can be as simple as “stay-at-home moms” or “science fiction readers” or “Batman fans.”
Under the “Acceptable” column, write down some ideas that your audience would easily accept or agree with. If you are writing for a liberal audience, for example, then this may include things like “gay rights” or “gun control.”
Under the “Unacceptable” column, write down ideas that your audience would disagree with or reject. With a liberal audience, this could include things like “voucher system” or “pro-life.”
Lastly, under the “Neutral” column, write down ideas that you feel your audience are undecided, unsure, or ignorant about. This column will, as we’ll see later, include your idea, the message or story that you’re hoping will make an impact (inspire, fascinate, entertain, etc.) on your audience.
Why is your message in the “Neutral” column? Because if you have to make an impact on your audience, it’s very unlikely you’re going to do so with an idea they already agree with. Telling a liberal audience that we need stricter gun control laws will only have them nod their heads, but it won’t make a real difference for them.
Making an impact involves leading your audience to uncharted territories. In other words, messages with the strongest potential for impact are those that approach, but do not exceed the limits of neutrality. Now that you’ve assessed your audience’s worldview, you can move on to the next step — determining the effect you want to produce.
STEP 2: DETERMINE THE INTENDED EFFECT.
To be a successful writer, you must be aware of the effect you want to have on your audience. Most people write in order to express their own feelings or thoughts without caring what kind of effect their work will have their audience.
But to move your audience, you need to communicate in a way that will affect your audience in a desired way. Lucky for you, there are two (and only two) kinds of effects you can have on your audience: awareness and conviction.
When you tell someone, for example, a funny joke, or recount a sad story, or inform him of an upcoming event, you are making this person aware of a piece of information (i.e. a humorous situation, a tragedy, an event).
Likewise, when you give a sales presentation to a group of clients, ask a friend for money, or participate in a debate, you are trying to convince your audience to do something (i.e. buy a product or service, give you money, agree with your side).
In order for your writing to have an impact, these two effects must be made mutually exclusive. In other words, messages that are not intended to create awareness must be created to create conviction. But not both. If your objective is to create awareness, but your message is structured to create conviction, or vice versa, then your writing will only create confusion.
For example, if your objective is to make your audience aware of a funny situation by explaining why the situation is funny, then you’ll lose the sense of humor. (You can’t convince people that something is funny — they have to simply find it so).
Likewise, if your objective is to convince your significant other to take you out somewhere by describing how boring you guys are (“We never go out anymore”), you will most likely not get the response you want.
As with every rule, there are always exceptions. Sometimes you can convince someone to do something by making them aware of some opportunity. This is called insinuation. For example, if there’s a movie you really want to see, you might be able to convince your significant other to see it with you by placing it by his or her night-stand with a note, “Looks exciting!”
However, the art of insinuation is very difficult to implement. Unless you know your audience really well (i.e. what hints they will get or respond to), the chances of having success with it is very low. Your best bet is to keep the two objectives — awareness and conviction — separate in your writing, focusing on achieving only one or the other.
Now you’re only half-way there. The next step is to choose the appropriate language that will allow you to create your intended effect on your audience.
STEP 3: CHOOSE THE APPROPRIATE LANGUAGE
Now that you know what effect you want to create on your audience (awareness or conviction), you have to choose the right language to communicate that effect. As communication experts tell us all the time, how you talk is more important than what you talk about.
When it comes to writing (and communication in general), there are two types of language you can use: descriptive language and generative language. Each language is matched with one of the two effects described above. Particularly, descriptive language is matched with creating awareness, and generative language is matched with creating conviction.
Descriptive language is language that is just that — descriptive. It’s focused on giving an account of some object, person, event, or situation. It’s concerned with simply providing details so as to produce a clear image of something in the audience’s head. The sentence, “That bird is blue,” is a simple example of a description.
More important than what descriptive language is is what descriptive language isn't. Descriptive language doesn’t include any talk about possibility. It doesn’t talk about what should, could, or will happen.
Generative language, on the other hand, is language aimed to generate a possible future for the audience. It’s language focused on possibility. When I say, for example, “You should buy this book,” or “Let’s go to a movie tonight,” I am creating a possible future for the receiver of the message, one that depends on his or her ability to do something (buy the book, go to the movie).
Ironically, the relationship between the two types of languages is not mutually exclusive. Oftentimes you will have to rely on both to communicate a message to your audience. For example, if you recommend that your readers buy a certain book, chances are you won’t get far convincing them unless you describe what the book is about.
The big question, however, depends on which language you focus on more. If you want to create awareness, then your focus should be on using descriptive language. If you want to create conviction, then you should focus on using generative language.
Taking from the example above, you do want to describe the book you want your readers to buy, but you want to focus more on the benefits the book will bring your readers rather than on the features of the book.
Knowing which language to choose is pretty easy, since it matches with the effect you want to create. The next and final step is the toughest part: structuring your message.
STEP 4: STRUCTURE YOUR MESSAGE
Now that you have a fair understanding of your audience’s worldview (Three Latitudes Model), the effect you want to have on your audience (awareness or conviction), and the language you want focus on to create the desired effect (descriptive or generative), it’s time to organize your message for maximum impact.
The first thing you should do is write out the objective of your message. Your objective should be tied directly to the effect you want to create. For example, let’s say that you want your readers to buy a new book you've just written on basic golfing techniques. Your objective, then, would be: “To convince my readers to buy my new book.”
The second thing you want to do is write a Position Statement — i.e. a statement that positions your message within your audience’s worldview. A strong Position Statement takes the reader on a clear and logical path from an idea that they already accept to an idea that they are neutral about.
Using the example above, let’s say your readers are intermediate and experienced golfers. Some obvious ideas that they find “acceptable” are that “golfing is an enjoyable sport” and that “golfing requires a lot of practice.”
Ideas that they would reject are that “golfing is boring” and that “practice is unimportant.” Ideas that they might be neutral about are perhaps mistakes they are making in their swing or how going back to the basics might help them with their game.
A strong Position Statement, then, could be: “Read this book to find out the top mistakes professional golfers make in their game and how you can avoid these mistakes by practicing simple golfing techniques.”
The logic of the statement goes like this: Even if you have experience golfing, you are not immune to making mistakes. Some or most of these mistakes are created by not mastering basic techniques. Therefore, you still need to go back to the basics. This book will show you how.
After you've written your Position Statement, you must outline your writing. You have to select details for your outline that will best describe or support your Position Statement. Usually these details will already be described in your Position Statement.
In the example above, the details went like this: 1) you’re probably making these common mistakes in your game; 2) these mistakes come from not understanding basic techniques of golfing; 3) this book describes how to quickly and effectively master these basic techniques to help you improve your game.
Not all details will be in your Position Statement. To have the ultimate impact on your audience, there are three things that you need to do. First, you have to create a background, something that they can anchor their attention onto. This background should be somewhat vague, yet intriguing, making your audience curious.
For example, if you’re writing to make your audience aware of an upcoming music festival, then you’re background detail could be: “The 7th Annual Music Festival is back again.”
Second, you have to create a foreground — specific details that your audience can focus on. With the example above, this foreground could be: “This festival will include four Grammy winning performers, including … It’ll also include arts and crafts for kids of all ages.”
Third, you want to create a close or summary that gives the reader what you want him or her to take away from your message. For the example above, this takeaway could be: “If you’re interested in going, this festival will run from Saturday, May 4th, to Sunday, May 6th, from 9 AM to 10 PM.”
So that’s the basic structure you should use: the background, foreground, and takeaway. After you've come up with a structure for your message or story, you can go on writing, revising, and sending out your message to your readers. And voila! You’re done.
So there you have it: four simple, yet key steps to creating writing that makes an impact on your audience. Before you start planning your way to earning a six-figure income or winning the Pulitzer prize, I must give you a warning:
There is no one, sure-fire message that will immediately impact your audience, converting them to your cause or making them absolutely adore your work.
The four steps described above outline a process that must be repeated and refined as you get to know your audience better. Everything depends on how well you know your audience. The more you get to know your audience, the better your communication will be.
What these four steps do is allow you to position yourself for creating maximum impact on your readers. It gives you the tools you need to think about how you can influence your audience in powerful ways.