This is a guest contribution from Mike Sowden.
Have you ever taken part in a business presentation that just died on the spot?
Say you’re up there speaking. Nobody is laughing at your jokes. Your throat has dried up. Dark patches of panic-sweat are appearing all over your shirt. You suddenly need the bathroom. What’s the number-one thing on your mind?
Or say you’re cringing in the audience as someone tanks up on stage. It’s awful to behold, it’s making you want to crawl under your seat or fling yourself out the nearest window – but you’re trapped. You have to endure the whole agonising mess. What’s the number-one thing on your mind?
When that happens (and surely it happens to everyone at some point), the number one thing on everyone’s mind in that room is: please let this END.
Endings are supremely powerful ways to motivate people, to build a loyal following, and engineer a lot of sales. Marketers use scarcity tactics to get you caring about endings (“75% off, today only!”). But how can blogs, with their focus on building conversation and community as much as commerce, use endings to hook readers? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Level up
Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness is a self-confessed gaming geek. He knows the irresistible call of the next rung up the ladder to success. It’s hard to make people care about a distant, lofty goal – and much easier to hook people with near-instant progress. (Just look at how levelling-based mobile gaming exploded in recent years.) Bloggers love publishing personal ‘bucket lists’ – but for his site, Kamb went one better and created his ‘Epic Quest For Awesome‘, complete with an experience points rule system. It’s now front and centre (ok, it’s top-right) of his landing page for Nerd Fitness and is clearly part of his strategy for making people care about what he’s doing.
What You Can Do: find a cool, exciting way to show incremental progress towards a clearly-defined set of goals – but also make sure that at least some of those goals serve your site and its readers as much as yourself.
Let’s agree that’s always annoying. Let’s also agree that it usually works – or we wouldn’t be annoyed, right? We’d breeze past without wanting to know more. Instead, we’re momentarily irked because we’re presented with an imperfect view of something potentially interesting, and against our own wishes, we want closure. Maybe we think we don’t care, but we still want to know the facts so we can decide we don’t care.
What You Can Do: lay subtle (or not so subtle) hints about the direction you’re taking your blog, giving the reader a sense that you know way more than you’re telling – which is really useful for those times when you’re making it up as you go along.
3. Attempt the Barely Possible…
There are few things that motivate people quite like a harebrained adventure with an apparently slim chance of success. It may be wise to chase an end goal for your blog that’s modest in scope and entirely achievable – but that’s a really poor way to market it. Make the story of your blog larger than life. Make it so ambitious that you’ll have people questioning your sanity, or at least your sense of proportion. I wonder how many people truly believed Chris Guillebeau would find a way to visit all 193 United Nations member states, an 11-year quest that would end on his 35th birthday? That’s what he achieved – and by making it a hefty challenge for himself, he raised the investment stakes with his readers.
What You Can Do: decide to do something that will appear both meaningful and crazy to your readers – and then announce it, in a serious, credible way. Do it right, and you have yourselves a little movement of people who really believe you can do this…and, of course, a bunch of people who want to see you fall flat on your face. So let’s talk about that right now..
4. …And Fail.
Whenever you and your blog attempt to do something different, you run the risk of failure. If you’re attempting something big, you risk BIG failure. The cataclysmic, huge smoking crater version that you’ll never forget being part of. To fail is to feel bad – there’s absolutely no denying it. But the odd thing about failure is it can be attractive to anyone watching – and that’s not because they’re being mean.
Human beings are drawn to dark and terrible stories. Stories of fear and woe and everything best avoided in real life. Stories of failure. Why? Science writer Jonathan Gottschall reckons it may be because storytelling arose as a way to keep us alive. What happens if I come down out of this tree and stroll past that sabre-toothed tiger? My story says: “you’d have a really bad day.” My story keeps me alive – and now I trust my story, even though it’s a horrible thing that will give me nightmares for the rest of my life. (Thanks, story.)
Similarly, it’s possible the modern appetite for dark, miserable stories is born of a need to avoid those events ourselves – in which case, a story of failure is deeply compelling. What lessons can we learn from someone who did it the wrong way? It’s awesome storytelling. In the words of Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coates: “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.”
5. Start with the End
A few months back, the TV show Breaking Bad delivered its final few episodes. Its viewing figures went through the roof, up tenfold from its first season premiere. In fact, Breaking Bad‘s popularity rose continuously through its 5-season run. Increasingly and in larger and larger numbers, people really cared.
Why? The writing was amazing, the acting was literally Emmy award-winning, the cinematography was to die for – plenty of creative reasons. But a key part of Breaking Bad‘s appeal was how it used its endings. Its signature opener was a glimpse of things to come later in the episode – often baffling, bizarre, without the context of the story to support it. You didn’t know why mild-mannered Walter White was standing in the road in his underwear, pointing a gun towards approaching police sirens – and you had to keep watching to find out, as the story flashed back to “x hours earlier”. Later episodes would flash forward entire seasons, eventually foreshadowing the finale itself – a place where terrible (but unspecified) things have happened. As the final episodes approaches, audiences knew enough of the ending to be whipped into a frenzy of anticipation and speculation…and the show ended with its highest viewing figures ever.
All because the Breaking Bad team knew exactly what to do with their endings.
What You Can Do: decide where your blog is ultimately going, and start telling that story from the very beginning. You don’t have to give away very much – but unlike the vaguebooking approach above, you’re not showing the journey, you’re showing the destination. Yes, this is tricky, and in the face of great uncertainty, it will probably require a lot of courage and strength of purpose. But the magical thing about foreshadowing is that it works both ways. Your audience will start to care more, because you’ll look like you know where you’re taking them – and you’ll care more as well. The more you communicate that ending, the more of a sense of purpose you’ll feel and the more likely you will be to actually get there. You will truly know why you blog – and isn’t that an end worth chasing?
Mike Sowden is a freelance travel writer and storytelling consultant from the north of England (UK). Find him at Fevered Mutterings - or maybe walking across some lonely, rain-lashed British hillside with a backpack, having “fun”.