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Are Your Personal Stories Turning Readers Off?

This guest post is by Ali Luke of Aliventures.

You’ve probably heard that you should put some of your personality into your blogging. And you know that stories are a great way to engage readers—to capture not just their attention, but their hearts as well.

Perhaps some of your favorite bloggers are people like Naomi Dunford or Johnny B. Truant or Pace and Kyeli Smith—folks who write from the heart, who are open and honest, and who make you feel that you know them. You want your blog to be like that too.

The problem is, it’s easy to get personal stories wrong. And a blog that’s too “me me me” can be a total turn-off for readers. They might not even read a full post before getting bored and clicking away.

Copyright Anatoly Tiplyashin - Fotolia.com

Readers are put off by…

1. Stories that have no point

If you can’t think of what to post about, don’t just ramble about your life story or write about your day. Just as with any blog post—or any piece of writing—readers will expect some structure and a clear message from your post.

2. Badly-written stories

Of course, you don’t have to be the next Shakespeare in order to be a successful blogger—but you do need to be able to write. If your writing itself isn’t very good, then readers aren’t likely to stick around. Conversely, a brilliantly-written piece can be incredibly engaging, even if the subject matter doesn’t seem very promising.

3. Stories that leave no room for the reader

So often, bloggers write personal stories that seem to be nothing but a self-indulgent exercise. These stories might be of interest to the blogger’s own friends and family—but there’s no reason for anyone else to care. The reader feels ignored and sidelined: the story is “me me me” with no acknowledgement of the reader.

The biggest problem with your stories is that:

No-one cares about you … yet

When a new reader comes to your blog, they probably know very little about you. They might have clicked on a retweeted link, they might have found you via a search engine—chances are, they don’t even know your name.

Of course, personal stories are a great way to help readers start to care—but not if you hit them with too much, too fast. Your reader doesn’t just want to know about you: they want to feel a sense of connection. They want to know that you’re someone who they can like, or admire, or learn from.

How to use stories the right way

If you suspect that your own stories might be putting readers off rather than drawing them in, here’s how to turn things around.

1. Start with a mini-anecdote

A short anecdote can be a great way to grab attention at the beginning of a post—so long as you don’t drag it on for too long. You’ll ideally either want something so unusual that it grabs the reader’s interest, or so typical (for your audience) that the reader can feel “that’s me”.

(You might want to return to the story at the end of the post too.)

How to do it

Here’s an example:

“I wake up, hit snooze on my alarm clock, and lie in bed. The alarm goes off again—and now I know I absolutely have to get up.  I’m frazzled, and know I’m going to need to rush to make it to work on time.  I scarf down my breakfast and brush my teeth, trying to juggle priorities in my head because I don’t think I have time to look at my todo list—I know I’m already behind schedule.”

(From The 10 Minute Difference Between Stress and Happiness by Sid Savara.)

2. Break your story into chunks

In some types of blogging, you may have a long, in-depth story to tell. Perhaps you’re a mommy or daddy blogger writing about your kids’ early life, or you’re a personal development blogger telling the story of how you screwed things up in college.

Don’t try to tell your entire story as one epic post. Break it into a series – and make each part have a clear central point.

How to do it

On The Simple Dollar, a personal finance site, Trent tells his story in a series called “The Road to Financial Armageddon”:

“The best place to start is the beginning. I was born into poverty, a family in which both my mother and father had been raised in poverty, too. Both of my parents were used to the concept of living from payday to payday, never having enough saved for themselves to survive more than a week or two. To some degree, this was out of necessity; there was often not enough money to put food on the table.”

(From The Road to Financial Armageddon #1: The Earliest Mistakes by Trent Hamm.)

3. Put yourself on the reader’s side

(e.g. Writing about financial difficulties, early career problems: “I’ve been through it too.”)

As bloggers, we’re often writing about situations which we’ve been through or problems we’ve overcome. We may well have come by our knowledge the hard way. For instance:

  • If you’re blogging about parenting tips, you might have done a few things wrong with your own kids.
  • If you’re blogging about marketing, you might have had a disastrous launch or two in the past.
  • If you’re blogging about gardening, your early attempts may have made you seem a little less than green-fingered.

Your readers are coming to your blog to learn how to solve problems, yes—but if you present yourself as an all-knowing guru, people may be put off. Readers want to know that they’re not alone, so help them by sharing stories that say “I’ve been through this too.”

How to do it

Here’s how to share the less-happy bits of your story so readers can identify with your feelings:

“I had asked for feedback, and at the time, I sincerely meant it, or thought I did. The problem is, once I consider something finished, I can’t imagine anyone’s honest feedback being anything but “Stellar! Best thing I’ve ever read! I’ve been waiting for this all my life!” So this feedback, even though it was constructive and mostly positive, crushed me. As fried as I was by then, I couldn’t be see anything clearly. I was devastated, ready to quit writing and retreat to my cubicle.”

(From Writing an eBook: How to Get Started (and Finish!) by Cara Stein.)

4. Tell an embarrassing story

Sites like “Learn From My Fail” are popular for a reason: we like to read other people’s embarrassing stories. They give us a laugh—and often lift our mood (“at least I didn’t do that!”) They can even provide valuable learning experiences.

You don’t want to overdo it and come across as a bumbling idiot – but occasionally admitting to something embarrassing or talking about a failure can make you more human in your readers’ eyes. They can also gain sympathy.

(Just be careful not to write about any current failures. “My total business fail last week” isn’t likely to win you many new clients…)

How to do it

Here’s an example (with great use of dialogue, too):

“Hi, uh …. Mr. Bruise is it?” No. 1 said.

“Yes, it’s actually Bruce, but thank you, I …”

“All right, what do you have for us today?” No. 3 said.

He was looking down, rustling some outstandingly important paperwork into some sort of crucial order.

“Yes, thank you, I, I’ll be doing a short monologue from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and another from Sean Penn’s turn in Carlito’s Way.”

I heard one of them groan under his breath.

(From Why Everyone Hopes You’ll Be the Hero by Robert Bruce.)

5. Make sure your story teaches the reader something

Funny or heartwarming or engaging stories are all well and good—but what readers really want is an “aha!” moment. They want your story to teach them something new, or to shed new light on something they already know.

How to do it

You don’t have to be explicit in spelling out “the moral of the story”, but if it works for Naomi Dunford…

Moral of the Story: Marketing Begins In Product Development.

When you are building your product, think about the stupidest person you’ve ever met. That person is your customer. Think about what problems they could have with your product.

When you are a wine producer, you want your customers to be well aware of how much wine they have on hand at all times. (Please pardon the pun.) You do not want them at home, trying to bust a move on their wife, setting up candles and massage oils and doing whatever people without kids do, just to find out they’re out of wine.”

(From Moral of the Story: Marketing to Alcoholics Edition.)

Are your stories working for you, or do you need to give more value to the reader? I’d love to hear about your experiences with telling stories, whether they worked or not—the comments are open!

Ali Luke is a writer and writing coach, specialising in helping bloggers to take their writing to the next level. Her ebook The Blogger’s Guide to Effective Writing was described by Colin Beveridge as “full of the tricks the pros use so that bloggers like me can put together posts and series that look halfway competent.” Read what other bloggers said about it here.

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Comments

  1. Lucas says:

    Thanks for yet another great post, Ali!

    Story telling is something I still struggle with. Once I get started telling something personal, I have problems keeping it short – which leads to the exact situation that you are telling us to avoid.

    I’m now starting to practice personal story telling by occasionally adding examples from my own life experience to my blog posts. This is easier than writing the whole post around one big story.

    • Naked Girl in a Dress is a personal blog so I too struggle with keeping the story aspect short and keeping to a point for the reader. I want them to gain something from the visit, but sometimes I feel I have to remind myself maybe they laughed because of the visit. That is worth something too.

      I find if I keep it serious all the time, it is too heavy (I write about life after divorce).

      It is a fine line of what is too much and this was a great post to remind me to always think before hitting publish.

      Great insight. Thanks!

    • Ali Luke says:

      Cheers Lucas! I think occasional examples and anecdotes are great; whole posts can work, if they’re really compelling (and not done too frequently).

    • Ben Teoh says:

      I’m venturing into the world of story telling in my blogs too. Great to hear I’m not the only one struggling with what/how much to share!

  2. Marie Noelle says:

    Thank you so much for the great advises! I seriously didn’t want to try to go into personal stories for my blog because I have read so many bad personnal stories everywhere and I didn’t want to be another blogger with boring stories… With your post, I’m sure I’ll be able to come up with something not too boring!!

  3. Pris says:

    Great post! I think most of us often get carried away when it comes to writing personal stories and don’t really think of the readers (or have only one reader on our minds, I’ve been there many times :P).

  4. I’ve tried telling personal story, failed very badly.

  5. Gosh, thanks for this Ali. Feeling a bit stupid, and a bit of a bumbling idiot after reading this I think. But, I needed that. Sometimes I try to be funny in posts and I’m now thinking it’s kind of too much and annoying. Maybe I need to tone it down. It’s hard to know what is too much, especially as a new writer. I don’t want to be boring, but I would much rather lean toward boring than annoying and stupid.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Aww, Erin :-( I’m sure you’re taking this more to heart than I intended! I took a quick look at your blog, and I don’t think you’re overdoing it — I really liked the popcorn analogy in the 31DBBB “list post” piece :-)

      • Oh, thanks for the response, Ali! I was kind of thinking out loud and did NOT mean for you to actually go check out my blog. Really appreciate the feedback, though. I think I do overdo it sometimes, so I will definitely keep your tips in mind in the future. It’s difficult to know what’s in the reader’s mind as they read a post and I’ve been struggling with that concept lately, so I guess your post struck a nerve. I may just have to write about that for my “Opinion” post for 31DBBB. Thanks again for being awesomely supportive!

  6. Arnold says:

    This is why I come to your blog. There is a wealth of valuable information and content to be had. I am new to blogging and love your site. Thank you for sharing!

  7. 3rddesign says:

    I agree with this post unless you’re having a personal blog. Anyway we started from personal blogging. If we focus on a certain niche, well, just a bit of personal stories will do but not the entire blog post.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Yep, a personal blog is kinda inevitably going to focus on personal stories … though it can still be outward-looking and inclusive of readers.

  8. Jose says:

    great ways to show em how to use the good ol turn around to save their blog lives..lol,great post

  9. Brad says:

    Great tips Ali.

    I think my stories are working and they usually have a point. I try to paint pictures in the readers mind so they can see what I’m trying convey. They prose is a usually a little vulgar so it may turn some readers off. On the flip side, there is no sugar coating things which I believe sets me apart from the herd.

    I get some comments and retweets so I may be onto something.

    Back to the bat cave……………..

    • Ali Luke says:

      Sounds like you’re finding a voice that works for you! If you’re gonna get fans, you’re also gonna turn some people off …

  10. earn5k says:

    I was wondering whether my first post should be about “how I broke my silence and started blogging “. Your post gave me confident to write about my personal story and how to write also.

    The three posts I read today going to be the key reasons for my new blog.

    Thanks guys.

  11. I am printing out the Right Way list and posting it above my desk. There is always room for improvement! Always more room for the reader and always a great tweak around the corner. Thanks for this awesome reminder list!
    suzannemcdermott.com
    drawandwatercolor.com

  12. Thanks for the tips! I think that personal stories help the reader know the writer a little better, entertain and inform. It helps the reader relate. Like we are friends.

    I am trying to practice keeping it short. I do a first draft of my story, writing everything I want to say without worrying about the length. Then I come back to it and start trimming away. It’s been effective for me. I just try to think about what I enjoy reading.

  13. I think relevance is the key to a good personal story. If it’s not relevant to why people come to your site, why tell the story?

    That’s a part of why established bloggers can tell personal stories that have nothing to do with the topic of their blog. Once you have people interested in you as a person, the personal becomes relevant.

    • Ali Luke says:

      I agree — relevance is crucial. And yep, once you have raving fans, your stories don’t necessarily need to always be on topic. (Though I find that many established bloggers are darn good writers, which definitely helps!)

  14. I don’t care! My readers just have to put up with it.

  15. Paul L says:

    Hey Ali,

    Great post. You made some good points there, especially in sharing some embarrassing stories or little real life incidences so the can relate. I definitely find those kind of personal stories more engaging and interesting. Even posts that aren’t “personal” in nature, sometimes can use a little opening personal remark which can make all the difference in engaging the reader.

  16. Ali,

    I think I tend to tell overly long personal stories! I like to think there is a point (eventually) but . . . this is a terrific reminder to keep the personal parts short and to the point. Thank you!

  17. I can personally relate to this article. Not so long ago I unsubscribed to a blog I’d been following for quite awhile because the articles had taken on such a personal tone – ok, whinny personal tone. This is a business blog and readers are being treated to blow by blow accounts of divorce, medical conditions, emotional turmoil. Hey, I hung in there for awhile because we all go through tough times, but when it became obvious this wasn’t just a short term stint I pulled the plug. It was a good lesson for me though – I am very conscious about the amount of personal information I share in my own articles. Thanks for the tips!

    • Ali Luke says:

      Yeah … that’s the kind of situation I was thinking about when I wrote this post. I have every sympathy with people who are going through a rough time, and obviously there’s sometimes a need to let readers know — but post after post of personal details on a non-personal blog is just going to turn people away.

  18. I never really thought of it this way and immediately checked my blog out in case that I did violated some rule here. Let’s face it, we, or I for that matter, tend to be caught up emotionally within my blog posts in hopes of emphasizing clearly the message I’m trying to point out.

    But then again, everything that’s overdone will always be ugly so thanks for the headsup Ali! It was my first time reading your guest post and I’m perfectly sure it wouldn’t be my last..

    Cheers from the Freelance Jobs Guru!

  19. Dan says:

    I think the key here (as stated above) is relevancy. If the story is relevant to the reason people go to your blog then it could work. It’s like those old fables – what is the moral of the story and how can your audience apply it to improve their own lives / business / blog?

    I think it’s also important not to go the other way and be too business focussed and not reveal any of your personality. Otherwise you’re just a mysterious figure tapping out great content, which is ok sometimes but not great if your audience can’t get a gauge on who you are.

    People want to be able to relate to you, your problems, your goals and successes.

    You can’t go wrong if you connect with your audience with both your content and your personality (using stories)

  20. Stephanie from Home with the Kids hit the nail on the head: it’s all about relevance. If you can tell a personal story in a way that makes your readers feel connected to you, you won’t have wasted their time. If on top of that you skillfully left them with a thought to ponder or comment on, ka-ching! Your post worked.

    I tolerate very few mommy blogs because my mommy days are well behind me, but the rare ones that do keep my attention are piercingly astute and/or funny. There are personal blogs in which nothing happens on a daily basis, yet they were written so exquisitely that I become a fan.

    How a personal story is written is what often separates the writers from the ranters.

  21. Imwaytoobusy says:

    Well said! When I start reading a personal story, I always skim it first to see if there is a lesson there. I don’t get anything out of reading a breakdown of someone’s day if there isn’t anything to take away from it. Granted, that’s the content some readers are looking for, but I prefer something a bit more productive.

  22. I can speak from personal experience that I’ve unsubscribed from a few blogs that were just way too personal. I don’t mind personal stories if they have point or entertain. However, some blogs turn into an overly negative place or a place just to vent. So I think your advice here is great!

  23. Rafa Benitez says:

    Everytime I try to write something personal in my blog, I seem to get lost, In the end it seems like everything I have just written becomes just pointless. I will try to implement the 5 points that you talk about. Thanks.

  24. I don’t like people who make their blog as a diary especially if they just talk about stupid things. I also make a post about this.

    http://zezebel.blogspot.com/2011/06/blog-as-personal-diary.html

  25. Michelle says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes! Great post! It seems that some blogs have tended to drift into the too personal sphere due to the lack of anything else to write about. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their bit of the www but consistency and relevance are imperative.

  26. Linda says:

    Hi Ali!

    Oh, how fortuitous. I was just engaged in a bitter Twitter exchange (albeit DM style) about how self-absorbed many bloggers are. Thank you for giving the rules for personal stories here.

    If I read one more blog about how someone bravely battled depression and anxiety for the sake of telling their story…

    #5 is a classic–gawd, I miss her:(.

    These examples are super useful, and thank you for sharing your expertise and experience:).

  27. Navneet says:

    A nice post and also reading First time integrating personal life with blogs.
    A nice Idea Thanks……..

  28. Melvin says:

    Whoa! This beat my right in front. Thanks for these great reminders Ali. As a new writer/blogger I tried to inject moral lessons in every blog posts I made. But there are times that it’s hard to tell if sharing that part of me to the readers would benefit them. I always tried to be more helpful to them.

    I’ll try very hard to practice these tips and hopefully I’ll get better at writing.

  29. Really great post! I fall into the healthy living blogging category and also am a psychologist so I tend to do a lot of story telling related to personal growth. #3 putting yourself on the reader’s side is something I often forget. I have a bad tendency of blogging for my own needs but not thinking of what my readers want. You’ve definitely given me some food for thought. Thanks!

  30. Tech Web says:

    Thanks – I think you struck the right balance between personalization and adding value to the reader. Readers want to be connected to writers but there is a balance.

  31. Becca says:

    Awesome! I agree, you totally nailed the balance between using personal stories and sharing lessons, giving the audience something to take away. As a new blogger, I felt comforted to see I have been thinking the same things you wrote about here. In fact I just wrote a post about this yesterday! http://bit.ly/n76tSn I’ll be coming back here for more advice soon.

  32. Carl Harris says:

    Good advice – I particularly like the point about breaking it into chunks and making specific points. Many thanks for this.