So often, we are lured into watering down our words, our mission, and our products. We have ambitions to reach everyone, and fears of offending anyone. So we cast a wide net, all the while, forgetting that’s not how the best have succeeded.
This is something I come across with clients all the time. Clarity is hard to come by in a world fueled by passioned pursuit. But ghostwriting for someone without clarity is a headache. So as the first step, with every client, I look to help them generate a deep sense of clarity (if they haven’t already) about what they want to accomplish with our writing.
Because to succeed in writing or business, you must know who you are and what you offer. Why should I hire you? Why should I read your work? What makes you different and better?
[Honest confession: I wouldn’t be writing this if it wasn’t something I am still struggling with. It’s hard not to try to please every person I know with every piece of writing. But my best work is when I’m not trying to do too much or reach too many people at once.]
Instead of give you my own thoughts, I thought I’d turn to some of the great content marketers and writers of our time. The following is a compilation of the best advice I’ve collected over the years — to help fight that innate desire to try and please everyone, especially in regards to producing creative work:
Focus on cultivating 1,000 True Fans.
This idea came from an extremely popular 2008 essay by Kevin Kelly. His thesis is this: to survive as an entrepreneur or creative person, you only need 1,000 fans that will “buy anything you produce.”
“These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month.”
In other words, they are obsessed.
The greatest companies, musicians, writers, and movie producers, have followed this rule. Before expanding, the first focus on wowing their core audiences. Creating revolutionary products, services, and art that deeply touch just a handful of people.
For example, Facebook started small — only available on Ivy League servers. Amazon was solely an online book retailer in the beginning. Metallica didn’t acquire an obsessive fan base because they were heavy and mainstream. Cheryl Strayed didn’t write her memoir, Wild, to appeal to men who had lost brothers at war.
Trying to buffer your message or appeal to too many people at once, is a way to quickly alienate core fans, and confuse potential ones. The better strategy is to “niché down” or start small.
And when you, as a creator, coach, or entrepreneur, are faced with the decision to buffer the message or water down the vision to reach a larger fan base, it’s quite possible that the better decision — in terms of reaching your larger financial or impact potential — will be to continue to focusing on creating what your already existing audience wants.
Yes, I realize Facebook now has users all over the world, Alexa is in your home, Metallica is a household name, and Wild has helped all kinds of grieving people. But each started somewhere much humbler. World domination was an afterthought. And so it is from that humble place, that their products, services, and art were able to tap into uniquely human — the desire to share.
Know what and who you’re for.
When you know what the goal of your project is, or what you are trying to accomplish with a particular piece of content, it’s easier to stay the course. Often times, the bigger problem is that we are comparing what we have with what others have. So, we go for a little of this and a little of that, not really get either. Or worse, we pay attention to irrelevant criticisms. Feedback like “I don’t like that Walmart doesn’t carry designer brands.” Well, that’s completely irrelevant because Walmart is specifically designed to offer affordable products, not Chanel. If over the years, Walmart took in trivial feedback like this — they wouldn’t be the massive corporation they are today.
Perhaps the easiest way of really gaining clarity on what you want to accomplish and how is to do what author Ryan Holiday suggests. Summarize the product, service, book, or article in one sentence:
“THIS is a _______ that does _______ for these _______ people.”
This way, when flashy opportunities show up on your doorstep, or extraneous criticisms come floating in, you’ll know when to say “no” or just press ignore.
Write as if you are writing to a friend. Or build as if you’re building for a friend.
The best authors and entrepreneurs are solving problems. That’s obvious. But maybe the best writing advice I’ve ever heard is to just: write to a real person, experiencing a real problem that you know about, and break down your thought process, offer your input, and back it up with research. When you have a focal point, it’s easier to write in a way that resonates with people or build something that has empathy baked in.
This article, for example, is written to a few people that I know well who are struggling to find and stay in a lane. One entrepreneur that has a good number of clients and is trying to expand his reach, and one that hasn’t brought in any yet. In writing to both, I know I’ll get somewhere. But I’m not all that naive — I know there are many others in similar positions. This may or may not help expanding my reach.
Focus on wowing 10% of your followers.
Not that I would know yet, but finding an authentic voice allegedly becomes a lot harder to manage as your audience grows to thousands and even hundreds of thousands of people (which makes sense). At that scale, people all have different wants and interests and you simply can’t expect to make them all happy with every piece of content you share or product you launch.
When you already have an audience, Tim Ferriss suggests this:
Focus on making sure 10% of your audience loves the podcast episode, blog post, or vlog rant you’re putting out. Because the “cost” of skipping over your content is free; it won’t alienate the people who don’t like it. They’ll get their turn eventually, anyways.
And for the 10 % it resonates with, you’ve done your job–in creating something that matters to them (and makes them want to come back for more). You’ve done your job in making them “raving fans.”
Focus on something timeless.
Why are Tony Robbins events still running after all these years? Why is The Shawshank Redemption still in the top-grossing movies of all time? Why are people still on Facebook, despite the insurgence of Instagram and Snapchat? Why do we still read The Illiad and To Kill A Mockingbird in schools?
You could say inertia (and maybe you’re partially right). But I say, each has tapped into something timeless. Something that resonates deeply at an almost cellular level with people. For Tony Robbins: people are always struggling and looking for ways to improve. For Shawshank: people want to be moved to chills with storybook endings. For Facebook: people want to connect and share in visible and varied ways.
When we are able to tap into something timeless, something that won’t change over the course of the next decade, we have the opportunity to not only foster an audience today, but to create work that really matters–work that sells and sells, creating a sort of compounding impact.