The Secret Path to the Universal Heart
"I'm writing for everyone." I'm chagrined whenever I hear a young writer say that. I remember what it was like when I was starting out and felt my writing had to work for the broadest possible audience. Then I spent long painful hours struggling to sort through the endless sands of potential without a sieve, without an easy-to-use measure of what would work.
It was hard for me to accept that even the best writer can't help everyone at once. Years later, I heard my friend Kim Castle express the lesson best: "A point in every direction is no point at all."
Fortunately, I learned to address the universal through the specific; that the secret path to everyone's heart is to help the neediest person.
Remember in the 1970's when no one used wheeled luggage? Those who needed it most were pilots and stewardesses who had to carry their bags down the long access ramps to the gates. Someone kindly devised the perfect solution to their problem, and soon travelers from the eldest sophisticate to the wobbliest toddler were rolling their own carry-ons. Hikers with wheels on their backpacks, musicians with wheels on their amplifiers-suddenly everyone needed that edge to make their flights on time.
The secret to making your topic universal is to find the person who needs it most-the one who can benefit the most from your solution-and write to that person. This gives those who have the same problem to a lesser degree the chance to identify with the need. They'll see their own problem within the extreme case and want to share in the solution.
Feeling the Reader's Pain
The ideal reader is the person who needs your solution the most-the person who is most affected by the problem and will receive the most benefit from the solution your content provides.
When you build a picture of this person in your mind, you can see the need for your solution more clearly. So spend time studying your reader. In this I agree with traditional marketers: find out the unique age, sex, location, interests, or other demographics that make this person most suitable for your solution.
But most important, you must discover your own feelings. Do you have a heart for this reader? Do you truly care about the pain the reader suffers? If not, you're going to have trouble getting the reader to care about your content or your solution. As Theodore Roosevelt said, "Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care."
The way to show the reader that you care is to sympathize with the pain they're experiencing. So study their pain. What are the consequences of not having the information or solution your content offers? Don't stop with just the physical results. Investigate the emotional burdens, the time and effort wasted, and the illogic of suffering with this problem any longer.
You must know these hidden costs intimately before you can truly understand the value of your material.
Managing Your Own Needs
When you know the problem's effect on a person in its most extreme case, you know the greatest value your solution can offer. Study what your solution is worth so that you don't undervalue your content.
Knowing your ideal reader also simplifies marketing your content. When you're aiming at a small niche, it is easier to communicate with prospects and find ways to connect.
You might be tempted to skip all this research because you believe you are writing for a person "just like you."
I hope not! I hope that you've solved the problem for yourself and are now offering the solution to others. Perhaps your solution is something you discovered that made a tremendous difference in your life, but the truth is you are no longer the person with the problem. You are the person with the solution! You are not the ideal reader.
When you identify too much with your reader, the reader can't tell how much you care about him or her. Your content begins to seem self-serving. Don't assume the reader will identify with your problems. Instead, show you care about the reader's problems.
To Build the Path, Show You Care
To show your reader how much you care, paint a picture of the problem your content solves. Sometimes the need is so strong, it doesn't take much to get the reader to identify with the problem. When the problem is subtle or insidious, you'll need to use stories of people who have experienced it. You'll want to include examples of the extreme case, but examples of those who are only subtly affected can help too. Go ahead and use autobiographical material as examples, but don't make personal stories your focus. It seems selfish. It's like talking about yourself all the time on a date!
Remember, you want another date; you want your reader to keep reading. So you have to show how much you care every moment you're writing. The reader-writer relationship makes an odd night out because the writer does all the talking. The only way you can show you care about your date is to show you listened carefully and understood deeply before you started to write.
So start today to listen for people who have the problem your content can solve. Empathize with their pain. Remember their stories. Learn to show you care and help them in the real world. Remember the results. Then roll all your experiences up into one ideal reader and keep that person in mind as you write. You'll find it's the magic sieve that tells you almost instantly what belongs in your content and what you can leave out-your best defense against writing mistakes.