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How to Engage Readers

December 12th, 2012 by

How do you create content that engages readers and keeps them reading to the end?  I’m asked that question all the time at WriterAccess. And good news: It’s really simple.  Any one writer can create engaging content. It’s taken me 12 years in the content industry, monitoring 350,000 orders created by thousands of writers, to sort out some answers that make sense.

The myth we chased for years was pointing to specific writers that could rise to the occasion and create that engaging content. We recently launched Free Writer Recommendations, for example, to any customer that needs help finding the perfect writer for a project.  It’s like a content concierge service for clients. And our staff loves it too. We improve the chances of success by asking customers to complete a Casting Call, so that we can learn the specifications and requirements for a project, and then help find the perfect match.

As it turns out, it’s not about the writer. It’s about the writing. Any writer can create engaging content. The problem is that we try and bake up engagement. We list all the ingredients.  And we infer that the better the quality of those ingredients, the better the cake will be. We are led to believe that the more consciously and artfully we combine the ingredients, mix them and carefully bake them, the better the cake will taste.

Likewise, we place orders for content that focus on ingredients. “This content needs to be engaging and entertaining—WOW me please.” Personas are developed listing the characteristics of the target audience. The style and tone are clarified to get under the skin of the reader. Master instructions are developed that list the mixing formulas. We then place the order in the cue to a writer we love, and then wait for it to be processed. An email alert pops up with “Ready for Review” and we take a look and instantly judge the work.  Met. Exceeds. Or, Below Expectations.

The answer to how to create engaging content is simple. How you bake a cake is the wrong approach. Instead, it’s how you make the reader hungry. Let me explain.

The great novelists and storytellers ask or imply a question at the beginning of the narrative. And then delay the answer. I’ve tried to do it here in this blog post. And you’re reading on. So it seems to be working, right?

Readers are human, and humans are programmed to wait for answers to questions. For example, if I were to ask you what everyone had in 1990 that they did not have in 1980, something that forever changed the writing and advertising industry, you’d probably want to know the answer. And you’d probably stick around through the storyline to hear it.  Word for word. Line by line. Paragraph to paragraph. The question comes first. The answer last.  The reader actually learns to love the chase. That’s engagement; the momentum is unstoppable.

Now, to the answer question, almost no one had a remote control in 1980, and conversely, everyone had one in 1990.  The ability to change the channel forced writers to ask questions during the program before the commercial breaks.  Even weather delivery changed—teasing tomorrow’s forecast before the 30 second ad spot. And it changed the way commercials and ads were written— Kevin Roberts, former CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi, authored Sissimo to help us understand how storytelling is critical to the advertising industry.

Trusting such a simple answer to engagement feels meretricious. The concept is very basic: Ask a challenging question and then create narrative fuel that slowly unveils the final answer at the end. Add in a few luxuries like elaborate product features, impossible to believe facts, solutions to problems, SEO keywords, and a few more, and you’ve got a winner.  Really?  Ya, it works.

So the next time you place an order for engaging content at WriterAccess, or want to create it yourself, remember the question is the answer with storytelling style. And remember, don’t bake a cake. Make your readers hungry instead!

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