Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What It Takes: Focus on the Person, Not the Product

What It Takes

Flannery O’Connor hooked my interest through a school-assigned reading of A Good Man is Hard to Find and her personal story kept me reading more. I was certain that a bit of that geranium she wrote about—“with its roots in the air”—was her, a transplant to New York City, from Georgia, where the geraniums weren’t put on apartment windowsills for sun, but thrived just fine on their own at home.

While her body was long gone when I arrived on the scene, her stories and articles about her have kept me re-reading her work, always finding something new each time I visit.

With a few exceptions, it’s the individual’s story, not the story itself, that hooks me. There are millions of books and films and paintings and albums and plays and concerts and…  When they are pitched as products – “one of the best films of the summer” or “an instant classic”—I keep walking.

These days, everything seems to be a bestseller, the next best thing, the best film of the year, the best of the best of the best.

When everything is the best…  None of it grabs my attention.

I stop for the personal stories.

It’s what got me reading Say You’re One of Them by Uwen Akpan, a book that still makes me shiver as I type this line. It was Akpan’s personal story—and a story about him that was shared by a friend of a friend of Akpan’s—that hooked me.

So how do you share your work via personal stories instead of product pitches?

When Zach Braff’s film Wish I Was Here was released over the summer, it caught my interest—but not in a way that had me wanting to see it. I’d read about his Kickstarter campaign and the press that followed, and was interested in how the film did, but … I don’t get to the movie theater that often and when I do, it’s mainly for films with my kids. Wish I Was Here would require carving out additional time and a babysitter and, well… It didn’t make the cut. Then I caught Braff on Sirius, hosting a program featuring the music from the film—and found myself pulling over to the side of the road, jotting down artists’ names and mentally thanking Braff for his introduction to Hozier.

Sharing the music of the film—rather than the film itself—made me want to make time for it. It also sent me down a Google rabbithole, learning more about Braff and his work. Count me a fan. Looking forward to what he does next.

Steve’s shared his work in a similar way, via Writing Wednesdays. His stories are often personal—and down-to-earth in a way that readers connect to them. This connection has turned into increased word-of-mouth sharing of his work.

Back in July, I hosted a few members of The Shadowboxers in my home, when they were in town for a performance. I took my college friend’s word for it when she said the band she was working with was good—and wouldn’t trash my home—when she asked if they could crash with us. I listened to a few songs online and found myself grinning ear-to-ear through their performance, but it was the personal side that really sold me. They knew the Lego characters residing all over our home and seemed just as excited as my 10 year old, talking about the wonderfulness that is the Lego DeathStar. I learned that one is always an early riser and another a runner. There’s a baseball fan in there and a native New Yorker turned Georgia transplant, too. I learned how they won a contest in college, after first being told they didn’t make the cut—and how the money they won allowed them to buy equipment to tour. Oh, and there’s a Kickstarter campaign and something about Phat Beets, too. By sharing their personal side, they had me buying copies of their album.

I’ve been watching Chris Brogan’s fitness transformation of late and now view him—and his work—through a different lens. Same thing happened when I started checking out Joanna Penn’s travel-related posts and podcasts. Scott Oden got me with his love of Orcs and Kamran Popkin caught me with what I think of as “Pop talk” (which is often over my head, but I still tune in for). Kamran’s neighbor Olivier Blanchard caught me with pics of Spartan gear (I think it was a hat that first got my attention) and his love of steampunk. Jeremy Brown’s love of all things Elmore Leonard and his diversity as a writer (he can do YA and some serious Leonard himself) got me into his books.

Genuine, personal stories are the best way to expand your audience. Hook their heads and hearts and you’ll find that you’ve hooked their long-term interest (and wallets), too.

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