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How to Engage and Captivate Your Audience ... When They Don't Want to Listen

Aaron Orendorff

What I Learned from Writing for (and being Rejected by!) Online Powerhouses

As I type, I’m sitting on the floor outside the registration booth at the Northwest Communication Association Conference in the beautiful Coeur d’Alene Resort, Idaho.

Oh, and the WIFI here sucks. First-world woes. 😉

Anyway, I’m at this academic conference to present on student engagement in the public speaking classroom.

That might sound a bit esoteric … but it’s not!

Why?

Because engaging and captivating your audience is hard.

Any nowhere is it harder than in a classroom full of students who don’t want to be there.

You see, I teach SPE111 — “Introduction to Public Speaking” — the most fear-inducing, anxiety-ridden ten weeks of any college student’s academic life.

And the ONLY reason any of ’em are there is because they have to be. It’s required.

So … to help you overcome apathy and light a fire in your audience’s heart, here are three lessons I learned from not only writing for but being rejected by online powerhouses.

Over the last year, I’ve had the phenomenal, and often humbling, opportunity to write for a host of online powerhouses:

  • Entrepreneur
  • Fast Company
  • Business Insider
  • Success Magazine
  • Copyblogger
  • MarketingProfs
  • Unbounce
  • Content Marketing Institute
  • Salesforce
  • ConversionXL

Based on this real-world experience, I’ve put together three pragmatic lessons that apply directly to increasing engagement in the public speaking classroom.

1.  Name Dropping and Popular Culture

Entrepreneur: “The Mindy Kaling Guide to Entrepreneurial Domination

My first pop-culture-driven article drew on lessons from Kaling’s career (The Office and The Mindy Project) as a model for success. I’ve used excerpts from this article — which has been shared over 7,500 times on social media — in class to stress universal principles; most notably, the power of sources and citation.

The pop-culture angle grabs your audience’s attention while communicating valuable insights.

Here’re two excerpts:

Be passionate

As trite as it might sound, nothing trumps passion. Carmine Gallo, in his insightful book Talk Like TED, lays it out plain:

“In any language, on any continent, in every country, those speakers who genuinely express their passion and enthusiasm for the topic are the ones who stand apart as inspiring leaders.”

Gallo’s point is that while mastery of a particular skill gives people a “platform,” it’s the passion that undergirds that mastery that makes them “connect.” Why?

Because passion is contagious. People love it. …

What’s yours?

Be a gangster

This wonderful nugget comes from B. J. Novak, Mindy’s one-time squeeze and current co-collaborator. “She’s a gangster,” Novak explains, “This is not a girl who waits by the phone. This is a girl who picks up the phone and calls whoever she wants.”

Case in point, when Mindy wanted long-time friend James Franco to guest star but his schedule wouldn’t allow it, no wasn’t an option. According to Franco, “She just made it happen.”

In other words, to be successful you gotta know what you want and gotta go after it.

It’s absolutely insane how few people can actually articulate what they want. And yet, having a clear, impassioned vision for where you want to go is the very first step in getting there. In fact, as author and consultant Warren Bennis famously wrote, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Without vision, the people perish.

But being a gangster means more than just knowing what you want.

It also mean getting it.

This form is incredibly replicable. In fact, here’re two high-level examples of forthcoming articles …

“The J. J. Abrams Guide to Intelligent Online Business”

  1. Tell a story
  2. Have a master plan
  3. Love your audience
  4. Stay consistent

“The Jimmy Fallon Guide to Making Your Customers Love You”

  1. Be Authentic
  2. Focus on Relationships
  3. Play Games
  4. Stoke Social Media
  5. Spread Joy

2.  Share Your Success

Students — and all audiences — love hearing about real-world wins. And transforming those wins into applications of communication principles drives those principles home.

By writing for publishers that students regularly read, I’ve been able to build my own credibility while at the same time highlighting the importance of things like having a clear thesis, the power of outlining, storytelling, and presenting calls to action.

The same is true for your guest posting.

Social proof is powerful and by building your portfolio — often pro bono — you show your expertise, rather than talking about it.

3.  Share Your Failure

Even more than success, people love hearing about challenges and failures.

For example, my first Fast Company article — BRING YOUR PRESENTATIONS TO LIFE WITH THESE 5 STORYTELLING COMPONENTS — was rejected (or ignored) by nine other online outlets before it was picked up.

This little ditty from my own blog — 5 Lessons from a “Failed” Copywriting Pitch — has garnered way more comments and social shares than I usually get.

Sharing your failures is especially potent in public speaking, where fear is high.

Perfect example …

Last week I was down in California speaking at one of Unbounce’s International CRODay events and in my conclusion I meant to tell a story about an amazing man I met from Barbados.

What came out was “Barbosian.”

And it wasn’t just live cast via Meerkat … it was recorded!

Talking openly about my rejections and persistence inspires students to do the same.

In fact, my motto — as counterintuitive as it sounds — is: “Let’s get rejected.”

How Can You Apply These Three Lessons?

Easy.

Focus on being human. People love … (1) being entertained, (2) hearing about wins, and (3) especially, hearing about failure.

Let me know your own favorite audience engaging and captivating tips in the comments.

However, this means the real question isn’t “What?” or “How?” but “Where?”

Where does “mass desire” come from?

The answer might surprise you.

It doesn’t come from your product, your benefits, your USP, your value proposition, your copy, or even from you.

It comes from your market itself. Schwartz explained:

The power, the force, the overwhelming urge to own that makes advertising work, comes from the market itself, and not from the copy.

Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people, and focus those already existing desires onto a particular product.

This is the copy writer’s task: not to create this mass desire—but to channel and direct it (3).

Naturally, this assumes that you have a market — a narrow and clearly targeted group of people whose lives your product would be legitimately improved. But I realize, that’s kind of a big assumption.

Who is your target market?

Copywriters often obsess about what they should write: product features versus product benefits; using the right keywords; nailing the headline, subheadings, images, and first line of copy; banging out a rough draft, and then editing, editing, editing.

Wrong.

Your real obsession shouldn’t be what, but who.

Copy without a target market is worse than worthless. It’s costly.

Without a clearly defined target market — real people with real problems looking for real solutions — you inevitably end up writing for the one person you shouldn’t be: yourself. Self-centeredness is a plague, especially when writing copy.

Begin with the demographics of your ideal customer. Richard Lazazzera’s How To Build Buyer Personas For Better Marketing dives into the sea of personal characteristics and eventually this example of “Alex” for a fictitious company, Bold Socks, surfaces:

Demographics, however, aren’t enough. Not if what you’re really after are words that sell. You’ve got to go deeper than age, ethnicity, income, location, and familial status.

How?

Through personas. On this front, three brilliant (and, thankfully, free) resources stand out.

First is Jen Havice’s How To Create Customer Personas With Actual, Real Life Data over at ConversionXL. As Havice explains:

Patching together actionable information about your customers with gut feelings, good intentions and some duct tape is not a recipe for conversion success. [P]ersonas are fictional representations of segments of buyers based on real data reflecting their behaviors. Their purpose is to put the people behind company decision making in the shoes of the customer.

Havice them shows how to shape personas through qualitative research.

The breakthrough insight — especially for anyone without a budget for focus groups — comes from her review mining work, which she’s consolidated into a recent book: Finding the Right Message. By all means, buy it. In the meantime, work through the above article as well as How to Boost Conversions with Voice of Customer Research [Case Study] that includes this free template:

Writing Copy Through Review Mining
Writing copy through review mining

Review mining to craft copy is one of my own copywriting hallmarks, especially when it comes to landing pages. You can see how I created this simplified copywriting cheat sheet directly from “feedback and comments on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Amazon, Reddit, app stores, and blogs,” along with what the landing page itself ultimately looked like over at KlientBoost.

Writing Copy from User-Generated Content
Writing copy directly from user-generated content

Second, Demian Farnworth’s Empathy Maps: A Complete Guide to Crawling Inside Your Customer’s Head (via Copyblogger). Empathy consists of two parts:

1. The intellectual identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

2. The vicarious experiencing of those feelings, thoughts, or attitudes.

After a brilliant overview of empathy in marketing — old school and new — Farnworth drops the gold (which you can download as a PDF simply by clicking the image).

Empathy Map
The Empathy Map Lets You Dissect Your Target Market into Four Quadrants on a Person-by-Person Basis

Third, my own The Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need.

That’s a post all about fear: hands-down the “most primal” human motivator. At the end are thirteen questions to help you haunt your target market (in the best sense possible).

Here’s a quick sampling:

  • What does your audience hate… about their life, about their job, or about your particular type of product or service?
  • What are the real-world consequences of these problems? In other words, how can you quantify, in real numbers, their hates and headaches?
  • What’s the most awkward, confusing, or inconvenient thing about your type of business?
  • What are the two to three biggest barriers to becoming a customer?
  • What nightmare or hell (be as vivid and emotive as possible) does your business save its customers from?

In all those resources, the point is to define your target market as concretely and viscerally as possible.

What are your target market’s mass desires?

Once that group is fixed, the next step is to make a list of all the possible emotions — the raw emotions — that might inspire someone in that specific market to act.

On the negative side, it might be:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Rage
  • Uncertainty
  • Embarrassment
  • Envy
  • Resentment

On the positive side, it might be:

  • Joy
  • Happiness
  • Accomplishment
  • Satisfaction
  • Elation
  • Desire
  • Lust
  • Pride
  • Comfort

After you’ve selected two or three dominant, raw emotions, get specific.

For example, the most dominant human emotion is fear. But nobody (despite FDR’s sound advice) fears fear. What we fear are people, places, things, and events. We fear the future. Or we fear situations that may arise in the future. We fear loss. We fear uncertainty. We fear failure.

On top of that, every market — just like every person — has its own unique list.

Take the real estate market for instance. What do new homebuyers fear most?

Some of the obvious boogiemen are …

  • The fear of being overwhelmed by the process.
  • The fear of being turned down for a loan.
  • The fear of picking the wrong neighborhood.
  • The fear of not having enough money for a down payment.
  • The fear of something better coming along and missing out.

Whatever it is, by selecting one of those fears and placing it front and center in your copy, you “enter the conversation already taking place in the customer’s mind” (Robert Collier).

Actually, what you enter is the conversation already taking place in the customer’s heart.

Either way, the keyword is “customer’s.” Their mind. Their heart.

Mass Desire in Action

To put a little more flesh on this idea, here are some classic examples of wildly successful headlines from Schwartz’s era that tapped into their market’s mass desires:

  • “Hair Coloring So Natural Only Her Hairdresser Knows For Sure”
  • “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in a Rolls Royce is the electric clock.”
  • “The Skin YOU Love to Touch”
  • “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
  • “Stops Maddening Itch”
  • “Do YOU make these mistakes in English?”
  • “How a bald-headed barber helped save my hair.”

Today, with advertising exposure rising exponentially, you may think that such straightforward appeals no longer work.

Just to prove they do, here is a handful of my favorite mass desire headlines from the web:

Unbounce: Speed

Sweat Block: Embarrassment

Basecamp: Stress

Mint: Relief

Memit: Simplicity

eHarmony: Winning (and, of course, love)

Blue Apron: Authenticity

Weight Watchers: Release

Designed to Move: Justice

Shopify Plus: Easy

Dapulse: Vanity

Apple Watch: Flexibility

MacBook Pro: Creativity

AirPods: Intrigue

What each of these headlines (classic and contemporary) does beautifully is identify and channel one desire: love, greed, entertainment, the fear of inability, or the fear of difficulty. They use emotive language to capture their audience’s hearts and minds. Emotive language that already exists in the market they’re trying to reach.

To breakthrough, your ads must do the same.

One more law about the word “one”

Having generated a powerhouse list of market-inspired mass desires, your greatest temptation will be to employ them all, like a sort of emotional machine gun.

Don’t.

You only get one.

(Well, you may get to split-test more than one. But each ad only gets one!)

Why?

Because in Schwartz’s words:

Every product appeals to two, three or four of these mass desires.

But only one can predominate; only one can reach out through your headline to your customer. Only one is the key that unlocks the maximum economic power at the particular time your advertisement is published.

Your choice among these alternate desires is the most important step you will take in writing your ad.

If it is wrong, nothing else that you do in the ad will matter.

So remember: Just. One.

2. The Second Law of Writing Copy: State of Awareness

We all know how vital headlines are.

As Brian Clark puts it, “On average, 8 out of 10 people will read your headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.” That means your headline isn’t just your audience’s first impression … it’s more than likely their only impression.

So here’s the question:

Where do “breakthrough” headlines come from?

You know what I’m talking about. The kind of headlines that pop up, stop your market in their tracks, and compel them to read every word after it.

Now sure, there’re a ton of great cheat sheets out there to get the creative ball rolling. Jon Morrow’s “52 Headline Hacks” is among the best.

The problem is most of us start out wrong because we start with us: our idea, our product, our service, our copy.

But …

What if there was a way to systematically craft breakthrough headlines based entirely on your market?

What if there was a proven formula to pull your prospects into your copy because it actually started with your prospects themselves?

On this front, three brilliant (and, thankfully, free) resources stand out.

First is Jen Havice’s How To Create Customer Personas With Actual, Real Life Data over at ConversionXL. As Havice explains:

Patching together actionable information about your customers with gut feelings, good intentions and some duct tape is not a recipe for conversion success. [P]ersonas are fictional representations of segments of buyers based on real data reflecting their behaviors. Their purpose is to put the people behind company decision making in the shoes of the customer.

Havice them shows how to shape personas through qualitative research.

The breakthrough insight — especially for anyone without a budget for focus groups — comes from her review mining work, which she’s consolidated into a recent book: Finding the Right Message. By all means, buy it. In the meantime, work through the above article as well as How to Boost Conversions with Voice of Customer Research [Case Study] that includes this free template:

Message Mining by Jen Havice via CXL

Review mining to craft copy is one of my own copywriting hallmarks, especially when it comes to landing pages.

You can see how I created this simplified copywriting cheat sheet directly from “feedback and comments on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Amazon, Reddit, app stores, and blogs,” along with what the landing page itself ultimately looked like over at KlientBoost.

Writing Copy from User-Generated Content
Writing copy directly from user-generated content

Second, Demian Farnworth’s Empathy Maps: A Complete Guide to Crawling Inside Your Customer’s Head (via Copyblogger). Empathy consists of two parts:

1. The intellectual identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

2. The vicarious experiencing of those feelings, thoughts, or attitudes.

After a brilliant overview of empathy in marketing — old school and new — Farnworth drops the gold (which you can download as a PDF simply by clicking the image).

Empathy Map
The Empathy Map Lets You Dissect Your Target Market into Four Quadrants on a Person-by-Person Basis

Third, my own The Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need.

That’s a post all about fear: hands-down the “most primal” human motivator. At the end are thirteen questions to help you haunt your target market (in the best sense possible).

Here’s a quick sampling:

  • What does your audience hate… about their life, about their job, or about your particular type of product or service?
  • What are the real-world consequences of these problems? In other words, how can you quantify, in real numbers, their hates and headaches?
  • What’s the most awkward, confusing, or inconvenient thing about your type of business?
  • What are the two to three biggest barriers to becoming a customer?
  • What nightmare or hell (be as vivid and emotive as possible) does your business save its customers from?

In all those resources, the point is to define your target market as concretely and viscerally as possible.

What are your target market’s mass desires?

Once that group is fixed, the next step is to make a list of all the possible emotions — the raw emotions — that might inspire someone in that specific market to act.

On the negative side, it might be:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Rage
  • Uncertainty
  • Embarrassment
  • Envy
  • Resentment

On the positive side, it might be:

  • Joy
  • Happiness
  • Accomplishment
  • Satisfaction
  • Elation
  • Desire
  • Lust
  • Pride
  • Comfort

After you’ve selected two or three dominant, raw emotions, get specific.

For example, the most dominant human emotion is fear. But nobody (despite FDR’s sound advice) fears fear. What we fear are people, places, things, and events. We fear the future. Or we fear situations that may arise in the future. We fear loss. We fear uncertainty. We fear failure.

On top of that, every market — just like every person — has its own unique list.

Take the real estate market for instance. What do new homebuyers fear most?

Some of the obvious boogiemen are …

  • The fear of being overwhelmed by the process.
  • The fear of being turned down for a loan.
  • The fear of picking the wrong neighborhood.
  • The fear of not having enough money for a down payment.
  • The fear of something better coming along and missing out.

Whatever it is, by selecting one of those fears and placing it front and center in your copy, you “enter the conversation already taking place in the customer’s mind” (Robert Collier).

Actually, what you enter is the conversation already taking place in the customer’s heart.

Either way, the keyword is “customer’s.” Their mind. Their heart.

Mass Desire in Action

To put a little more flesh on this idea, here are some classic examples of wildly successful headlines from Schwartz’s era that tapped into their market’s mass desires:

  • “Hair Coloring So Natural Only Her Hairdresser Knows For Sure”
  • “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in a Rolls Royce is the electric clock.”
  • “The Skin YOU Love to Touch”
  • “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
  • “Stops Maddening Itch”
  • “Do YOU make these mistakes in English?”
  • “How a bald-headed barber helped save my hair.”

Today, with advertising exposure rising exponentially, you may think that such straightforward appeals no longer work.

Just to prove they do, here is a handful of my favorite mass desire headlines from the web:

Unbounce: Speed

Sweat Block: Embarrassment

Basecamp: Stress

Mint: Relief

Memit: Simplicity

eHarmony: Winning (and, of course, love)

Blue Apron: Authenticity

Weight Watchers: Release

Designed to Move: Justice

Shopify Plus: Easy

Dapulse: Vanity

Apple Watch: Flexibility

MacBook Pro: Creativity

AirPods: Intrigue

What each of these headlines (classic and contemporary) does beautifully is identify and channel one desire: love, greed, entertainment, the fear of inability, or the fear of difficulty. They use emotive language to capture their audience’s hearts and minds. Emotive language that already exists in the market they’re trying to reach.

To breakthrough, your ads must do the same.

One more law about the word “one”

Having generated a powerhouse list of market-inspired mass desires, your greatest temptation will be to employ them all, like a sort of emotional machine gun.

Don’t.

You only get one.

(Well, you may get to split-test more than one. But each ad only gets one!)

Why?

Because in Schwartz’s words:

Every product appeals to two, three or four of these mass desires.

But only one can predominate; only one can reach out through your headline to your customer. Only one is the key that unlocks the maximum economic power at the particular time your advertisement is published.

Your choice among these alternate desires is the most important step you will take in writing your ad.

If it is wrong, nothing else that you do in the ad will matter.

So remember: Just. One.

2. The Second Law of Writing Copy: State of Awareness

We all know how vital headlines are.

As Brian Clark puts it, “On average, 8 out of 10 people will read your headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.” That means your headline isn’t just your audience’s first impression … it’s more than likely their only impression.

So here’s the question:

Where do “breakthrough” headlines come from?

You know what I’m talking about. The kind of headlines that pop up, stop your market in their tracks, and compel them to read every word after it.

Now sure, there’re a ton of great cheat sheets out there to get the creative ball rolling. Jon Morrow’s “52 Headline Hacks” is among the best.

The problem is most of us start out wrong because we start with us: our idea, our product, our service, our copy.

But …

What if there was a way to systematically craft breakthrough headlines based entirely on your market?

What if there was a proven formula to pull your prospects into your copy because it actually started with your prospects themselves?

Let’s save the world from bad content