Stop Trying to Engage Your Audience. Start Engaging Yourself.

Ben Thomas
Jun 25, 2019 · 6 min read

Engagement” — so many digital content creators are madly in love with that word!

If audiences don’t feel engaged, we tell our clients, then they’ll move on to a different site, app or device— and that’s the last you’ll ever see of them.

But as eagerly as we sweat and scramble to engage our audiences, very few of us try to engage ourselves first.

And that’s a massive problem, because —

If you’re not able to engage yourself, you’re not going to engage anyone else.

What does it mean to feel engaged? (I’ll stop repeating this word now, I promise.)

Think back to the last time you were thoroughly absorbed in a project — preparing a presentation, crafting a sales pitch, designing a label; a task that made you forget where you were and when you’d last eaten, because the only thing you cared about was making this better.

That’s precisely the feeling you want to awaken in your audience.

The only way to inspire that feeling in others is to discover it for yourself, as you create.

Here’s how to do that.

1. Find the hook in your topic.

I’m going to tell you something that might surprise you:

Content creation isn’t supposed to feel like hard work.

Yep, you heard me right.

If you’re staring at a half-written document, struggling to find the right words to sound like a thought leader, then you’re going about this whole thing completely wrong.

Every topic contains something…

Yes, every topic. I don’t care how dull it sounds.

Don’t believe me?

Salt:

The Axumite Empire of ancient Ethiopia used salt to control Roman trade routes. The American Revolutionary War was fought over access to salt mines. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi walked 200 miles, collecting salt for India’s impoverished people.

Tax law:

Most people who employ housekeepers and babysitters cheat on their taxes. Texas has a “pole tax” for strippers; profits go to victims of sexual assault. Nearly 30 of the biggest American companies pay no US tax at all.

Commuting:

People who talk to strangers on the train enjoy more satisfying commutes. Couples who commute in the same direction tend to be happier in their relationships. I once knew a guy who lived in San Diego but worked in Los Angeles; he said the commute gave him time to brainstorm and listen to podcasts.

Throw your most “boring” topics at me. Bring ’em on. I will find a hook that gets me intrigued about every single one. That’s what you should be doing, too.

Instead of looking for tricks to engage your audience, look for hooks in the topics you write about.

Cut past the buzzwords and expose the beating heart of your story:

  • What’s the pain point or problem?
  • What solution or resolution have you discovered?
  • Why should your audience listen to you, specifically instead of 100 million other copywriters who optimized for the same keywords?

The answers to those questions all start with your hook.

So stop trying to get a hook into your audience — and let your topic sink its hook into YOU.

2. Slip into a flow state.

You’ve probably heard the term “flow” in the context of creative work. It’s from the 1990 book of the same name, by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

In that book, Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as engagement in a task that

  • Focuses on a clear goal
  • Follows rules you understand
  • Presents problems you can solve
  • Requires skills you possess
  • Provides clear and useful feedback
  • Gives you control over the outcome

In other words —

When you sink your teeth into a problem you’re equipped to solve — you enter a flow state.

  • Boxers get into flow states when they work the heavy bag.
  • Painters feel it when they pick up the brush.
  • Runners slip into flow as they find their pace.
  • And we content creators — well, we find our flow in wordplay, of course.

Once your topic gets its hook in you, you’ll find it’s easy to slip into a flow state — provided you’ve got the resources and skills to tackle the problems your topic presents.

Instead of thinking about the finished product, or the money you’ll make, or the other chores you’ve got to do today — focus on the hook.

Bite into your topic. Discover as many surprising facts as you can. Analyze those facts. Come up with your own insights. Contribute to the conversation. Move the discussion forward.

When you’re delving into a topic that intrigues you, copywriting doesn’t feel like work.

It feels like going on a quest to dig up useful findings, and sharing those discoveries with people who need them. That’s exactly how writing is supposed to feel.

3. Play with your words.

If words aren’t your favorite toys, then I’ve got bad news for you — you’re in the wrong racket.

Nobody likes a copywriter who takes no pleasure in the act of writing.

And after all, why shouldn’t the words you write be a source of joy? That’s what craftship is all about.

Veering into purple prose is part of the creative process. Throw out the wildest imagery you can conceive of — then clean it up, dress it in a suit and tie, and send it off to work for your clients.

Your primary purpose, as a writer, is to play with words, and trick them into doing surprising things.

Your first calling is not to sell products, or attract leads, or build search rankings, or cultivate thought leadership. All those things will happen once you’ve learned the tricks of word-taming. Play with your words, and the rest will follow.

Crack the whip. Make your words sit up, beg, fetch, and play dead. Make them jump through hoops, ride unicycles, stand on their toes and sing popular tunes. You’re being paid to make words do startling things — so mix your words up and twist ’em around until they knock you out of your shoes.

Your first draft is your playground. You’ll edit later — but for now, let the words dance.

Push the imagery as far as you can. Come up with absurd scenarios. Present outrageous examples. Call in your favorite characters. Write as if you’re trading gossip with your best friend — or telling a story to a five-year-old.

Once you’ve summoned up scenery that no one in their right mind would take seriously, take a break.

Then come back to the page and clean it up.

Editing is always more fun when you’ve got a big mess to play with.

And that, my friends, is how to engage yourself — and your audience.

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