If it were as easy to create an audience as it is to take an online course or follow a checklist of steps, everyone who started a blog would have thousands of readers and each podcast would have thousands of listeners. Every politician would win elections and every actor would have thousands of adoring fans.
People who gain traction, attention, loyalty, and manage to stand out in a sea of noise understand the psychology of building an audience.
Building an audience for your work requires a combination of work, social intelligence, and an understanding of human behavior. If you do the work but ignore the other factors, you will find it much harder to get and keep an audience’s attention.
In many ways, building an audience is a kind of seduction. If you have ever fallen in love with another person, it is not because of where they have taken you on a date or what they were wearing. These things are in the background, but it is the connection you make that makes them fall in love with you.
Public figures, from politicians to actors to artists, understand the psychology of building an audience. They are highly attuned to people’s emotions, hopes, dreams, and goals. Although it may feel like participating in a high school popularity contest, the psychology of building an audience is as much about your personality as it is about work.
Understanding Your Own Psychology
Before you can understand the psychology of building an audience you have to understand your own.
You have advantages and disadvantages in every area of life. You have a temperament, a level of emotional intelligence, and skills that are suitable for some occupations, not others. These are the foundations on which everything else is built. If you want to build an audience, it is useless to develop the key characteristics that make people like you when you have nothing to support them.
Don’t Follow Your Passion or Build a Personal Brand
Self-help books, graduation speeches, and motivational seminars perpetuate the mantra to follow your passion. But this advice is full of misconceptions.
The Problem With Passion
Blind pursuit of passion regardless of strengths, weaknesses, talents, and abilities often leads to poverty and secrecy. As Tina Seelig said in our interview on the Unmistakable Creative, passion follows engagement. Instead of following your passion, pay attention to what you find engaging.
The hard truth is that there is only a small audience for certain passions. Sonia Simone calls this the problem of naked mole rats. While you may have a passion for naked mole rats, you probably won’t find many other people who do.
Don’t follow your passion. Build rare and valuable skills, pay attention to what you find engaging, and in the words of Cal Newport, be so good they can’t ignore you.
The Problem with a Personal Brand
The paradox of a personal brand is that you may be the face of that brand or the person who creates the product, but the purpose of that brand is to serve your audience.
Emily Heyward writes in her book Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One: “To build a winning brand today, you have to start with your customer and the problem you solve for THEM.”
Finding your Purpose
The discovery of your purpose must come from within. Parents, peers, mentors, and teachers can inform the journey, but they cannot define the destination for you. You would never buy a plane ticket to Houston, get off the plane, and ask the pilot why you are not in Chicago.
The same goes for purpose. You have to take responsibility for where you want to end up. To gain mastery, a student has to leave a teacher and develop a point of view that she brings to her work. Danielle LaPorte says: “If you really want to screw up your life, you should never question your spiritual teachers.”
Because a person is an authority figure in a domain, you will be tempted to treat what they say as gospel instead of guidance. But if you leave it to someone else to define your purpose, you will wake up and realize that you are living a life and doing work that others expect of you rather than what you want for yourself.
Be Aware of Cognitive Bias
We all have cognitive biases that inhibit our ability to think for ourselves and cause us to overlook context. When it comes to authority figures, confirmation bias determines who we listen to, what we buy, and how we act.
For example, a popular podcaster will say, “Everyone should start a podcast.” And you want to listen because that person has been so successful with their success, but confirmation bias leads you to overlook the advantages that may have played a role in their success:
- A massive head start
- A big email list, etc.
- Years of experience that gave them an opportunity to build their skill
You come to the wrong conclusion that if you act as that person says, you will get their results, but that almost never happens.
Only is Better Than Best
Many outstanding female entrepreneurs, artists, and creators are graduates of Marie Forleo’s B-School program. But there is also a subset whose efforts result in an epidemic of mimicry. They try to use the same language, the same design style, and their results pale in comparison to Marie’s.
When I asked Laura Belgray about this during our interview on The Unmistakable Creative, she said this:
There are always hidden variables and outlier advantages that play a role in every successful persons’ achievements.
- It could be their education, how they were brought up by their parents, an innate talent that they have nurtured or developed through years of experience and practice, or their current circumstances.
- Perhaps they had a difficult upbringing that gave them incredible resilience and tenacity.
It is not possible to replicate these variables and advantages. It’s a mistake to overlook that in your efforts to build an audience.
Contrary to what many online marketers and personal development gurus say, there is nothing EVERYONE should do. Standing out in a sea of noise is critical to the survival of a brand, company, or creator in today’s world. That’s hard to do when you’re just following the herd.
It makes no sense for an extraordinary artist who is shy, timid and thrives in solitude to pursue a public speaking career or start a podcast. To give up something in which you are exceptional to be average in something else is the height of stupidity.
Our natural temptation is to look at what works for other people, do what they have done, and replicate their results, but YOU are the obvious variable that throws any formula for success. And when you overlook that, you are denying the world of your gifts.
There is no point in trying to become the next version of someone else if you could become the best version of yourself.
You have to learn to modify the advice and adapt it to your circumstances, gifts, and temperament. It is the path to find what you are doing so that nobody else could do it to discover what makes you unmistakable.
Part 2: The Traits that Draw People To you
In his book The Turn On: How the Powerful Make us Like Them from Washington to Wall Street to Hollywood, Steven Goldstein identifies eight key characteristics that are essential to the psychology of building an audience. These are the traits that cause:
Artists and creators to gain trust, attention, and loyalty from fans of their art
Politicians to attract voters and win elections
Customers to buy products and services
If you want to understand the psychology of crowd building an audience, whether it’s fans, voters, or customers, you have to understand these traits and cultivate them in yourself.
A few years ago, someone I interviewed asked me a question that had a big impact on how I thought about the psychology of building an audience.
Who earns more money, teachers, or entertainers?
Whether through writing, podcast, or YouTube videos, you need to entertain your audience to captivate them. Without the entertainment factor, writing is just words on a page, podcasting is just noise coming through a microphone.
Entertainment and attention for your work are birds of a feather.
One of the most important criteria in how we choose guests for the Unmistakable Creative is whether or not I think the person’s story is entertaining. And I will always choose a person with an interesting story over the person with an impressive resume.
The professional courtesan no one has heard of or the world’s best Yo-yo artist will have a more interesting story to tell than the person who has a million followers on Instagram, but no substance to support it.
Two people could convey exactly the same message, but if one is boring and the other is entertaining, the person who entertains will captivate their audience and keep their attention. Whether you like it or not, building an audience for your work is a performance.
Think of your favorite teachers at school. They were the ones who picked up on a boring topic and made it entertaining.
That’s one of the main reasons people watch people like John Oliver and Trevor Noah. They take complex topics that would be boring on CNN and making them funny and fascinating.
To put it bluntly, don’t be boring. You might think, “Thank you Srini, that’s fine, but how do I become less boring?” More importantly, “How do I become fascinating?” Thanks to Sally Hogshead, we have a research-based approach to doing just that.
1. Become More of Who You Are
In our interview on Unmistakable Creative, she summed this up with some advice she received from her father, which is crucial for anyone to become fascinating. “You don’t have to change who you are, you have to become more of who you are.”
We all have a story that is worth telling, but the problem is that the story is buried under masks, labels, and the pressure to live up to the expectations that people have of us. So we water down our work, play it safe, and hold back.
Of course, there is a subtle difference between speaking the truth and speaking whatever you want without being aware of how you shape the public’s perception of yourself.
2. Be Provocative with a Purpose
Anyone can provoke by using an insane amount of profanity or posting outrageous images of themselves on social media. But being provocative with a purpose does not mean getting attention. It’s about making a statement and sharing a message that matters to you.
Following the release of Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film, journalist Joseph Allen wrote: “Whatever you think of his methods or his comedic styling, Sacha Baron Cohen knows how to provoke better than anyone else in comedy.”
Cohen has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of what most people think is appropriate. He may be hated or loved, but he provokes with a purpose. His goal in the latest film was to share a social commentary on the United States in 2020.
3. Have a Bold and Compelling Point of View
Having a point of view is crucial for any artist or anyone who wants to create an audience for their work. And as Justine Musk says, if you have a bold and compelling point of view, it will piss some people off.
A point of view that’s bold is not going to appeal to everyone, and as the saying goes, if you try to appeal to everyone, you will appeal to no one.
Millions of people tune in to Fox News every day to watch Sean Hannity. His view is bold and compelling to certain people, and it annoys me so much that I think he’s an idiot. But that’s why he appeals to so many people.
Most people hold back because they’re afraid of pissing people off. But anything with resonance is usually polarizing. So you have to ask yourself, who is my work for? Who is not for?
And as Seth Godin says, shun the non-believers.
4. Harness the Power of Stories
Human beings are hardwired for story. Story as Robert McKee says is the currency of human contact, whether you’re trying to grow the audience for a blog, listeners of a podcast, writing a book, composing a song, or making a movie. The kind of stories that captivate your audience leads to what NPR calls driveway moments.
Too often we think that our story is not worth telling because we don’t have a big audience, a book contract with a publisher, haven’t been on a popular podcast, or give a TED Talk. These things don’t make your story worth telling. They are simply mediums of telling your story.
If you have the courage to tell your story, these opportunities will present themselves.
Information and facts in themselves bore people. But when they are part of a story, they become entertaining and help you retain the attention of your audience.
Using captivating stories in your content is like making a sandwich. You have bread, spices, meat, salad, and tomatoes. The main takeaway of a story is the meat, while the stories that lead there are all the other ingredients. Cal Fussman has mastered the art of making a compelling story out of an interview. Instead of sticking to a script, he asks questions that elicit stories and finds out who they are beyond titles, status, and accomplishments.
He humanizes the people he interviews through stories and makes them relatable to all of us in return. Compelling stories do not come from your resume or the expertise you possess, but from your life experience. As I have always said about guests of the Unmistakable Creative: If all we learn from an interview is what we know from a book, that defeats the purpose of an interview.
5. Give People a Reason to Find You Interesting
In a commencement speech at the Carlson School of Management, venture capitalist Chris Sacca told graduating seniors, “Your GPA only matters to people who have no other reason to find you interesting.”
The same is true of the achievements on your resume or the degrees you have earned. What makes someone an expert or an authority in their field is not what makes them interesting. Their story does.
One line in a person’s bio is often the difference between a yes and a no when I choose podcast guests for The Unmistakable Creative.
When Dain Heer’s publicist pitched him as a guest for the Unmistakable Creative, one sentence struck me: He was a white kid who grew up in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood. However, this line was buried several paragraphs into the pitch. If the publicist had led with that, I would not have read the rest of the letter and said yes.
The stories of our lives are like layers of onions. And in order to discover what makes us interesting, we need the courage to peel these layers and share them with the world. Often, it is the parts of our history that we omit and that have nothing to do with our work that gives people a reason to find us interesting.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to lead an adventurous or glamorous life to tell compelling stories through your work. You can turn mundane experiences into interesting stories.
My first job after college was boring as hell. I sat in an office all day and made cold calls. You might think that gave me nothing interesting to write about. That summer, a college friend launched a website called Summer of Amit and invited all of us to contribute.
I wrote stories about the guy who tried to beat the shit out of me at the Hometown Buffet, about the bathroom that had one shitter at an office where everyone at Indian food for lunch, and about my drunken sexless night in San Fransisco. By the end of the summer, “Summer of Srini” was the most-read column on the site.
Living in a suburb and raising two children may not sound like a very interesting story on the surface, but Janelle Hanchett has turned the experience into a hilarious and popular blog about her fight against meaningful parenting advice.
What matters is not the story, but the way you tell it. If you get used to watching the world around you, there will never be a lack of compelling stories that appeal to an audience.
6. Emotional Resonance, Heart and Soul
Think of the movies you love, the books you rave about, or the music you listen to years later or the last piece of content you had to share or talk about with a friend.
This is not a coincidence. People who successfully build an audience care deeply about the work they do is very important to the audience and how this work will affect their audience. If a creator pours love, blood, sweat, and tears into his work, the audience will feel it. There is no way to fake it.
As Robert Greene writes in Mastery, “Your emotional commitment to what you are doing will be translated directly into your work. If you go at your work with a half heart, it will show in the lackluster results and the laggard way you reach the end.”
The combination of being provocative with a purpose, a bold and compelling point of view, compelling stories, and emotional commitment to your work will captivate your audience and make them fall in love with you.
2. Hope and Optimism
Captivation without hope does nothing to contribute to a public figure’s likability. Naked captivation creates the star we love to hate. Hope is the additive necessary to turn captivation into the foundation of likability. — Steven Goldstein, The Turn On
Hope is another key characteristic of people who understand the psychology of building an audience.
People who give us hope inspire us and broaden our sense of possibility. They are optimistic, resilient, and able to give us a picture of a better future.
Think of your favorite authors, actors, bloggers, musicians, podcast hosts, and business founders. You are unlikely to listen to them because they make you feel worse about your life.
They serve as models of possibility. They are beacons of light in our darkest moments. They teach us how to turn adversity into advantage, setbacks into comebacks, and how to get from the lowest point to the highest point in our lives.
But they don’t just fill our minds with platitudes that lift us up for a moment and leave us empty, and they don’t see the world through rose-colored glasses; they force us to think about the pillars of a meaningful life and understand the essence of our goals.
Nobody wants to hear about your problems other than your therapist. They want you to help them solve theirs. And that’s precisely what successful politicians, authors, public figures, and people teachers do for us. It’s hard to admire anyone who is hopeless and pessimistic.
When my roommates and I first moved into our apartment, we watched all six seasons of Friday Night Lights. My roommate Matt had never seen the movie. He was relying on the coach in the movie to be exactly like Coach Taylor.
But he was annoyed that Billy Bob Thornton was the coach in the movie instead of Kyle Chandler. Almost everything about these actors from their mannerisms to their tone of voice is so different that he loved the show and hated the movie. The lack of reliability led to a subpar experience.
After my freshman year of college, I went to a U2 concert on their tour for the album Discotheque. This album was a bit of a departure from the U2 sound that most of us had grown up with. For the first 30 minutes of the concert, they played songs from the new album and the audience was underwhelmed.
But the moment they started to play one of their older songs, the audience erupted with applause. This was the U2 we knew and loved. With the album that followed, they met our expectations and returned to the style their fans were relying on.
Whether you’re an actor, author, blogger, or podcast host, people in your audience will begin to have certain expectations of you and your work. And when you violate those expectations, they’ll be disappointed.
If you heard an episode of the Unmistakable Creative that was about celebrity gossip, your reaction would likely be WTF is this? It’s such a violation of the expectations you have that it would be jarring.
This doesn’t mean that you aren’t free to experiment and push boundaries. Just don’t lose the essence of what made someone fall in love with you in the first place.
3. Authenticity and Vulnerability
Authenticity is the most misunderstood of all the qualities that need to be developed to understand the psychology of building an audience. No public person is 100% authentic, no matter how they present themselves to the world.
Shaping public perception
It doesn’t matter if you want to be an iconic artist or CEO of a billion-dollar company. Whether you like it or not, everything you create, say in a podcast, in a book, or on a TV show, shapes people’s perception and opinion of you.
Being in the public eye is a performance. Without conscious efforts to shape public perception, it becomes difficult to build an audience.
Whether a politician, porn star, expert or Internet celebrity, or any public figure who creates an audience, their personality that differs in public and in private.
Behind closed doors, we say and do all the things that would offend the people we serve. I tell my roommates and closest friends things on a daily basis things that are a potential PR crisis in the making. Saying them in a podcast would kill my career.
Regardless of how authentic someone appears, full transparency is not only inappropriate for the public, it undermines your ability to understand the psychology of building an audience, as well as your appeal to the people you want to reach.
I’ve learned that the hard way from several people in my life.
A few years ago, I aired the dirty laundry of a broken heart in my Facebook status updates, and my mentor Greg called me to give me some tough advice I needed to hear.
When I said, “Yes, but Greg, I’m human too.” He said, “Yes, Srini, that’s true, but you don’t get to make that excuse.” When you’re a public figure of any kind, people have expectations of you, and you inevitably put on a mask to live up to those expectations.
A few years later, my sister called me about an article I had written during a difficult time. She said, “Be careful when you write something like this. People hire you to speak at their companies based on what they read about you. And if you write something like that, it won’t give them the confidence to hire you.”
What you create, say and do in public carries more weight than what you do in private. Your words and actions count. Choose them wisely. You will shape people’s perception of you, whether these perceptions are true or not.
Public vulnerability is a subtle art. Sometimes, you cross a line to find out where it lies, but without some kind of line, you come across less as vulnerable and more like an emotional train wreck.
“If you present yourself as flawless, we won’t be on board with you at the top of your piece, and there is often no turning back. On the flip side, it’s easy to get us on board with you from the start. “ — Margo Leitman
The most absurd thing I’ve ever heard about my work at Unmistakable Creative was from a potential saleswoman who listened to a few episodes of the podcast and said, “You have to be the most self-actualized person in the world.”
The constant joke with my friends and team members is that every single podcast guest on the podcast is a reflection of some problems that I am trying to solve in my own life.
Failure at the public vulnerability
The popularity of Brene Brown’s work has made vulnerability one of the biggest buzzwords of the last decade. However, we often interpret vulnerability as a license to air our dirty laundry in public forums. People treat their audience as their therapist and vulnerability as a tactic.
Some might say that the way my mentor Greg treated me was tough love that went too far. Five years later, I realized that he was right and prepared me for more high-stakes situations.
Today, all my actions, everything I write, record, and do in public, reflect not only myself but my publisher, speaking and literary agents, and investors. Therefore, I have to keep that in mind with every single thing I say or do in public.
Part of Turning Pro is playing. Drown your sorrows in vodka, smoke as many fucking cigarettes as you need, cry all you want, but when you are a public figure, you often have no choice but to leave it behind closed doors.
In the fall of 2018, I was in a dark time in my life.
My business partner of three years and I had separated.
The Audience of One book launch hadn’t met my expectations.
I felt like my life was starting to unravel.
When we were in the green room prior to going on set at Creative Live, I almost started crying. Danielle LaPorte looked at me and said, “You’re really in it.”
But I wasn’t there to talk about my problems. I was there to teach the art of interviewing at Creative Live’s podcast week. I chugged a coffee, wiped a tear, and conducted the interview. Maybe people noticed, maybe not. It didn’t matter. I was there to do a job.
The danger of crossing the Line
Using vulnerability as a marketing tactic is not only inauthentic. It’s a disservice to your audience, your customers, and your fans. You’re crossing a line that can damage your business and your life. You run the risk of doing irreversible damage to your career.
I remember the first time I spoke to a potential investor shortly after a breakup in 2014. It was one of those situations where the break up was all I could talk about. My inability to be aware of when it was appropriate to share this cost me a potential investor in my business. When Greg Hartle heard about our conversation, he said, “You’re behaving like a fucking teenager.”
When you are in the middle of darkness, you have to be selective and intelligent about how to let your guard down, and you have to trust that the people who are the hardest on you sometimes have the best intentions. Someone once told me that my mentor was so hard on me only because he saw so much potential in me.
I’ve said before that great art often comes from great pain. Just listen to any Chicago album.
So how exactly do you turn pain into art? How do you turn setbacks into comeback and losses into lessons? How do you practice the subtle art of public vulnerability?
Wait Before Sharing the Lessons You Learned
One of the smartest things Danielle LaPorte ever said to me was: “I don’t write or share anything about an experience until I’m finished processing it.
There is no worse time to write about something and share it publicly than when you are in the middle of it. Intense emotions cloud our judgment. They make us irrational and unpredictable.
- Anger: Have you ever said anything useful or brilliant in the middle of a tantrum? Probably not. Yet, while having tantrums, people do irreversible damage all the time. I have seen people sending angry emails and burning bridges that took years to build in minutes. They are so trapped in the heat of the moment that they sacrifice the future.
- Sadness / Depression: As someone who has dealt with my share of depression, I do not condemn you for it. But when we are depressed, our emotions are a rollercoaster ride. What we say can be stupid or immature.
Research tells us that it can be incredibly helpful to express one’s creativity in order to process traumatic experiences, but that does not mean that everything is suitable for public consumption.
Despite what you might have thought on social media, you don’t have to share everything you create. I wrote about painful experiences while I was still going through them. But the writing stayed in the pages of my notebook.
When we are vulnerable with our art, it humanizes us, makes us relatable, and builds trust within the people who consume our art. Vulnerability creates emotional resonance, which in turn makes our content contagious.
For this reason, people believe that heart-wrenching stories they read in beautiful memoirs are the path to fame. It is easy to forget that some of your works are intended only for an audience of a particular audience.
No one wants to hear a sob story that one is still in. If there is no redemption, no growth, or a lesson worth sharing, then it’s not ready for public consumption. Often, the painful experiences you have written about in private are ready for public consumption long after they happened. Most of the events mentioned in this article date back years.
Regardless of how authentic, genuine, and transparent it may seem, uncertainty, especially in the public sphere, repels people. We all experience failure, disappointment, pain, and setbacks and we can learn valuable lessons for our work from each of these experiences. But if you want to build an audience for your work, you cannot treat your audience like your therapist.
Vulnerability is not a marketing tactic, and we need to stop exploiting it like it is.
Definitely let down the guard, let people in, but recognize that there is a difference between airing your dirty laundry in a public forum and authentic vulnerability.
Values and standards
A few years ago, an assistant to a famous author made me compromise my values. When I told her that our interviews were an hour, she said, “This person will offer more value in 30 minutes than all your other guests in an hour.” We agreed on 45 minutes, and he didn’t even come close to the caliber of our other guests.
Since then, I have made my standards and values for which we give interviews non-negotiable; the show lasts an hour if the guest is Oprah or the Dalai Lama. A potential guest, whom I am sure you have heard of, expressed interest in our show. I wrote back with three criteria, none of which were negotiable and the guest passed on our show.
Your values and standards should never be negotiable because if they are, they compromise your integrity in the eyes of your audience. Drawing a line in the sand is a sign of authenticity to your audience.
Compassion and Perceptiveness
Compassion is the willingness to act on perceptiveness through love, kindness and active care. Together, perceptiveness and compassion shed light on a public figure’s feelings for other human beings. — Steven Goldstein
If you have ever met Danielle LaPorte in person, you know that her presence changes the energy in a room. When I asked her about it in one of our interviews, she summed it up in one word: love.
She cares about the people who work for her, the people in her audience, and her peers. She is sensitive enough to know that she may be the one in the limelight, but that all these other people make her work possible.
In many ways, she is the epitome of what Steven Goldstein calls conscience traits in his book.
Perceptiveness is the ability to read between the lines of what people are saying and doing to understand the intentions behind those words and deeds. — Steven Goldstein
Each audience consists of a multitude of people from different backgrounds, circumstances, and life experiences. Each person is at a different stage of their journey, and being aware of this is crucial to understanding the psychology of building an audience.
Perception is the combination of three sub-characteristics that Steven Goldstein writes about in his book:
- Fluidity — Be flexible enough to perceive the differentiation among others or at least the evolution of others and go with the flow
- Curiosity- Healthy curiosity leads to creativity, and people often find creative people likable
- Humility: Admit you don’t know everything. Be open to experiments, failing and learning something better
When we launched one of our first online courses, our former content strategist Kingshuk always reminded me, “These people, are not you. Most of the habits you teach them are second nature to you because you’ve been with them for so long and they haven’t.” Without this advice, it would have been easy to overlook the fact that everyone in our audience was in a different phase of their creative development.
The profound power of curiosity has been the driving force behind every decision I’ve made in terms of building an audience. It’s how I select podcast guests, topics I can write about, and also how I get to know members of our audience. If you have a real curiosity about the people in your audience, you’re more likely to connect with them.
When I hired Milena Rangelov as our community manager, I gave her one goal: to develop an ambassador program to increase the audience for the podcast. After a month of research and somewhat limited traction, she came to me and said, “What do you want? Free ambassadors or paying customers?”
Listening to her meant admitting that I was wrong and she was right. Despite years of experience in building an audience, her strategy was more effective and would ultimately do a much greater service to our community. So I even let her lead our weekly meetings and jokingly say I report to her.
Humility allows us to listen to people with valid opinions, whether they are in our audience or on our team. The ego is one of the greatest dangers of being an authority figure in the public sphere. If you allow yourself to be guided by your ego, you run the risk of getting too high on your own bullshit.
Unlike perceptiveness, compassion involves the ethical impulse to to get involved, as opposed to being merely aware of someone’s internal state. Compassion is a desire to end suffering and strife, wherever it may exist by promoting justice and equality. Compassion is about freeing the opposed and noticing the unnoticed. — Steven Goldstein, The Turn On
Despite having opportunities to have his story made into a movie, write a book, and build a sizable audience, my old mentor Greg Hartle passed up on those opportunities because the only person for whom they would make a meaningful difference was himself. As he said in our conversations, his goal was to put an end to people’s unnecessary suffering.
Instead of sitting on the sidelines, he decided to get involved, so he did the least scalable thing. He traveled to all 50 states, worked one-on-one with 500 people, sat in their living rooms, and had intense conversations with them. As a result, he had a tangible impact on the lives of every single person he came into contact with.
Today, it would be hard to find evidence of his efforts on the Internet. After the project was finished, he deleted his website and if he has a social media account, it is rare to see a post on it.
If you don’t have compassion for the people in your audience, your work is unlikely to have much impact on them.
I have had several opportunities to interview people who would make the downloads on our podcast skyrocket, but my job is not to serve our guests. It’s compassion for our listeners. And if I don’t think a guest will benefit our listeners, it doesn’t matter what they do for our metrics. They’ll never make our cut.
Having compassion means recognizing that you could be the one doing the work, but the purpose is not to inflate your ego, follow on social media, or the size of your bank account. It’s about improving the lives of people who put their trust in you.
Of all the traits one needs to develop to understand the psychology of building an audience, empathy is at the top of the list.
Think of the person running for office; they can talk about anything that qualifies them, or they can put themselves in the shoes of their constituents and talk about what they are doing for the people who elect them.
When it comes to the psychology of building an audience, the same is true. It’s not about what the audience can do for you, but what you can do for them.
The Internet complicates and can reduce empathy.
People forget that at the other end of every tweet, every comment, and every person they talk about is a human being. They rarely pause to think about how they would feel if someone did the same to them. So they write angry emails to people they have never met, troll strangers on the Internet, etc. This is the opposite of what it means to have empathy.
But it is human nature to make what Sarah Rose Cavanaugh calls appraisals. We make meaning, tell stories, create images in our heads, and draw conclusions about what a person is like based on a limited set of data points.
Do you really know what’s going on in a life that looks fantastic on the internet? Perhaps there’s a level of suffering between sexy selfies, beautiful holiday photos, or poetic status updates that you wouldn’t envy.
In order to understand the psychology of building an audience, you need to be able to put yourself in their situation and take into account the context in which they consume your content.
Telling a single mother of three, who has multiple jobs to keep food on the table to sign up for a $10,000 coaching program while you’re galloping around the world and uploading your perfect life to Instagram is the opposite of empathy. Unfortunately, it is so common that self-help books are full of stories like this.
Ask yourself if you would be willing to fork out a fortune to change your life if you were in their shoes.
Empathy means humanizing the metrics of your audience:
Listeners instead of downloads
Readers, not book sales
People instead of transactions
In the words of Austin Kleon: Hearts instead of eyeballs.
Even if you are not responsible for the results of the people in your audience, you have a moral responsibility not to harm them for personal gain. Ramit Sethi, for example, refuses to sell his courses to people who have significant credit card debt, because it would contradict the message of his work and harm them.
Humanizing the people behind the numbers is at odds with the narrative of maximizing profits when running a business. But if we fail to recognize the humanity behind the metrics, we lose empathy and, with it, the trust of our audience.
Learn to deal with your critics
When you are in public in any capacity, you inevitably become the target of criticism. There is no best-selling book, movie, or record album that does not have one-star reviews. Harsh and sometimes unwarranted criticism is the price of being a public figure.
I had one person call my work a disservice to humanity and another call it a gift to the world.
Dealing with your critics is a key part of the psychology of building an audience. You can spend your time and energy feeding trolls and argue with people over email and social media. Or you can spend time creating something that touches hearts.
When people become defensive and hostile to their critics, it is because they have acted in a way that requires them to defend themselves. They are not confident enough to acknowledge that they have said or done something that justifies the criticism they receive. Their ego not only impedes their ability to build an audience but also to live a meaningful life.
If, on the other hand, you are confident enough to know that you have not said or done anything that warrants sharp criticism, you will not feel the need to be defensive of your critics. You will also know much better whose feedback is important and whose doesn't.
People who manage to build audiences and lead rich and meaningful lives don’t spend their time feeding trolls — or, as Scott Stratten likes to say, “You’re not the jackass whisperer.”
Not all critics are the same.
One of the most important but difficult things we have to learn as creatives is to get feedback, and sometimes that feedback is hard to hear. But there is a big difference between anonymous feedback and people whose opinions matter.
When George Lucas was ready for somebody to see Star Wars for the first time, he invited some friends his biographer described as his most difficult audience. Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and some other well-known filmmakers were in the audience.
As you might have guessed, the feedback on what would later become one of the most iconic films in film history wasn’t good. Brian De Palma didn’t hold back and was pretty brutal, saying things like “What is all this force shit?”
Imagine you are George Lucas and a close friend is tearing the movie you put your heart into to shreds. How would you react? Would you be willing to listen or tell your friend to go to hell?
The latter reaction would be a natural one for many of us. But the thing to remember is that when everything you do is in the public eye, especially when it reaches a large audience, it will get a fair share of harsh criticism. If you can’t handle getting tough feedback from people who care about you, it becomes difficult to take it from people you don’t know.
Lucas was willing to listen. Brian De Palma even helped him rewrite parts of the script, and the rest is history. Reflecting on this feedback in Brian Jay Jones’ biography of him, he said the following:
When you don’t know people well, they either give you dishonest compliments or tell you how they would shoot it. And that’s not what you’re asking them for.- George Lucas
Why we admire certain public figures and despise others
There are certain public figures whom we value very much: they connect with their audience in a way that makes them feel connected to them. That’s why we read their blogs, buy their books, and support them in their efforts.
1. Michelle Obama
When Michelle Obama’s book Becoming was released in late 2018, it sold over 700,000 copies on its first day. When I told my father about it, he said, “Because she’s a former first lady, and I replied, “No, because she’s Michelle Obama.” In her interview with Jimmy Kimmel, it took nearly two minutes for the audience to stop clapping and he could start the interview, as you will see in the clip below.
What draws us to someone like Michelle Obama are the qualities that Steven Goldstein highlights in his book. In her book, she writes the following:
For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as a forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end. I became a mother, but I still have a lot to learn from and give to my children. I became a wife, but I continue to adapt and be humbled by what it means to truly love and make life with another person, and yet there are moments when I feel insecure or unheard.
Despite her achievements and status, there is a degree of humility, vulnerability, and authenticity to how she shows up in the world. The emotions she feels in this passage are universally relatable, and as a result, people are drawn to her.
2. Seth Godin
If you ever talk to anyone who has worked with Seth Godin in any capacity, one word always comes up: generous. And he is one of the most generous people you will ever meet. He offers so much value to his audience by writing a blog post every day without asking for anything.
When a creator of any kind, puts his heart and soul into his work, we recognize it. And as a result, we love it. Of course, that doesn’t negate the need for the work to be of the utmost quality.
3. Gwyneth Paltrow
In an article on The Cut about the 20 most hated celebrities, Gwyneth Paltrow is number one on the list. Maureen O’Connor, who wrote the article, described it as follows:
Cluelessly condescending Gwyneth Paltrow believes she can improve the lives of others by telling them how to eat, sleep, groom, even poop. She’s a “rich white woman with an eating disorder turned into a branding opportunity,” critics say. She tries too hard at acts that should be effortless, like digesting.
I have no personal feelings for Gwyneth Paltrow and actually like most of the films she stars in. But what the public disdains is that she’s not relatable. How many people can relate to the experience of being a rich white woman? Not many.
The Journey Behind the Psychology of Building an Audience
There is much more to building an audience for your work than increasing traffic to a website, optimizing it for conversions, and building a large following on social media. These things might help you get someone’s attention, but they won’t help you keep it.
Capturing people’s hearts and minds requires social intelligence, compassion, authenticity, and generosity. It doesn’t matter how good your work is if these qualities aren’t there.
If you don’t understand the psychology of building an audience, you will struggle to build one.
Building an audience is not just the result of tactics, hacks, and marketing strategies. The psychology of building an audience is a journey.
It is a journey on which you lead your audience from where they are, to where they want to be. Contribution, connection and generosity are the foundations of this journey.
Who do you want them to become as they take the journey with you?
Before you Go
I’ve put together a list of interviews with creatives and entrepreneurs who can teach you how to develop a bold point of view. Just click here.