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How to Write Posts that Spread

A Simple 10 Minute Exercise to Distinguish Between Useful Ideas and Ones Likely to Fall Flat

Herbert Lui
Nov 17, 2015 · 7 min read

“Some people are like, ‘Oh, yeah, just sell out and do pop music.’ So you fucking do it, then! It’s not easy.”

— The Weeknd, 2015 Rolling Stone interview

Some topics are inherently contagious.

But most topics cover important ideas, but can be unbearably boring. That’s when content marketers, communications specialists, and writers are needed the most.

A lot of important work goes unread. According to this report, 31% of The World Bank’s PDF reports had never been downloaded. 40% of them had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. 65% of respondents to this study think that web content is “hit or miss” or “unreliable.”

Next time you hit the Publish button, you can do more than just cross your fingers. As a fellow writer and marketer, I’m here to offer a solution:

Write something a reader finds undeniably useful. They’ll be compelled to share it with at least one person they know.

My hypothesis is the more useful stuff you create, the greater your audience and client or customer base will grow. (That’s why Google tests out strategic side projects, like Primer.)

This piece will help you focus on creating content that’s useful to your readers. (Because there’s a lot of useless content out there.)

Important: I’m assuming that you write well enough for a reader to get through at least half your article. This piece will help you refine ideas, which is an important part of the writing process. However, I don’t share much tactical advice on how to improve your writing style in this piece.

This piece will be exceptionally useful for anyone in content marketing, communications, or copywriting. This advice is applies to:

  • Bylines/guest posts
  • Blog posts
  • Articles
  • eBooks
  • Whitepapers
  • Press releases
  • Just about any other piece of content (written, illustrated, filmed, spoken, etc.)

When you write things with the target reader in mind, more of them will stumble upon it. Some of it will receive it from a friend or colleague. Others might find it through a newsletter. And still others might find it in a trade publication or journal.

You’ll have a higher probability of attracting some qualified leads. Even if they’re not ready to buy now, they might feel you’re valuable enough to sign up for your newsletter. You can keep in touch with them through buying cycles of all sizes.

It’s fun to dive right into the creative stuff. But it’s not always effective. Strategy can sometimes feel like pulling teeth. But it gives you a far greater likelihood of success — whatever your goal might be.

This framework that I’m about to show you helps you answer these types of questions:

  • Who cares?
  • Who wants to read it? Why?
  • How are you helping someone’s life? What information are you giving them that they care about?
  • Why would a reader want to share this with their social networks?
  • How are you going to convince a bypassing reader to join your audience or become a potential customer?

I created and tested a framework that focuses your writing on your reader. Here’s how it works:

How can you reach more people?

“Most authors approach books the wrong way… They want to write a book for [themselves]. Which is totally fine, but you can’t expect it to sell. A book for you is really called a diary. And no one buys diaries.”

— Tucker Max, in an interview with Jayson Gaignard (15:35)

One of my friends, Corey (also my client at the time, now a director of BD at Huge), liked the business model canvas. He suggested a couple of years ago that I create a similar model to support with blog post ideas. I’d liked the idea, but wanted to wait until I had produced more consistent results with it.

When I was thinking about how to consistently create great content, Corey’s suggestion hit me like a boomerang. (Thanks Corey!)

I needed something to help me better discern between these types of ideas:

  • Good ideas (useful, potent ideas that will resonate with readers)
  • Bad ideas (the ones that are too focused on ourselves or repetitive of someone else’s ideas)
  • So-so ideas (which have potential, but need more thinking/work/re-angling).

Before you use this framework, you’ll need a list of content ideas or topics.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m focused on creating something practically useful for the reader. It has to improve their lives in some way. Delivering this practical value is a great way to reach them and make a strong impression. The first iteration of the content canvas is fundamentally about delivering practical useful content. Here it is:

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Sign up here to download the content canvas PDF, and learn more about updates for the content canvas and my experiments with it. I also have a Google Spreadsheet here, with some sample content canvases I used.

By no means is the content canvas set in stone. Rather, this is a starting point, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. I’m already working on v2 of the content canvas. It features a “sharing proposition” (something I learned from working with the Busy Building Things team on this piece). It also frames the content to challenge readers’ behaviors, beliefs, and belongings.

If you’re looking to build an audience, delivering practical value will always be useful. It doesn’t have to be a tutorial, “How-to,” piece. For example, people never have enough time to think about problems they’d like to solve. It’s helpful for you to do some of the mental work for them. It’s also easy to replicate consistently. People like exploring new ideas and applying it to their lives. It’s why Jason and I got 10K+ views for this piece on Google Primer.

However, this analysis can also be paralyzing. That’s why I suggest you spend no more than 10 minutes on it.

The 10 Minute Pre-Writing Ritual

“Once you try to convince yourself that the fans are stupid, then you lose. You belong to them. Not the other way around.” — The Weeknd, MTV Road to Release (16:58)

Instead of diving right into creating your content, think about it more clearly. Run through this sequence of the canvas. Take just 10 minutes to quickly fill it out.

Contrary to what some communications professionals might think, strategy isn’t a drag. It helps you produce results.

When you produce results, you’re not just a wordsmith anymore. You become a magician. You will be exponentially more valuable to your sales and marketing team.

So take 10 minutes before you write to consciously set the creative direction of it. You’ll have a much better idea of what you’re writing.

Start your content by keeping your primary audience in mind. If you’re in business, this will be your most important target market segment. Work backwards and create a value proposition for them, which will be the article’s goal.

Then, think of key messages that will be the main points of your content. These should be well-thought out, actionable, and specific takeaways that the reader can apply into their lives.

You could also write down specific communities that you think your content would be relevant to. This might mean emailing a newsletter curator. You might also want to get a friend to submit it to a certain subreddit or other type of community.

Like what you’re reading? I’ll be exploring more experiments with refining content and ideas. Click the button below to get updates.

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Tweak Your Canvas

Here’s the thing. It’s not like instant inspiration. It’s a lot of iteration and testing and looking at words and research.

— Ryan Holiday, in an interview with Andrew Warner

The midas touch is not given or bestowed. It’s developed through hard work and many repeated attempts. It’s not for everyone. If you have thin skin or take your writing too personally, it’s going to eat you alive before you can make it happen.

By no means have I perfected it, either. I still rely on the framework to guide my thought, and I refer to it constantly as I draft and edit the piece.

Sometimes there are a-hah moments, like when Scott Adams says his body can feel when a joke is funny. But that takes time to develop and refine. Use the canvas. Develop your own taste for when an article will be a hit.

It might not work your first 2–3 (or even 5–10) times. But, you should find your content getting better and better. You might also learn about your audience more, and realize where your assumptions or understanding might have been misplaced. And eventually, you’ll find a great content-customer fit. And that will be when strategy pays off.

Good luck! And please get in touch if you have any questions.

My name is Herbert, and I run a content marketing agency called Wonder Shuttle. Our team brings previous experiences from companies like Google, Gawker Media, and VICE.

Sign up here to download the content canvas PDF, and learn more about updates for the content canvas and our experiments with it.

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Herbert Lui

Written by

I cover individual and company growth. Author ‘There Is No Right Way to Do This’

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

Herbert Lui

Written by

I cover individual and company growth. Author ‘There Is No Right Way to Do This’

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

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