- Michael Thompson
“My favorite thing about today is nobody bit me!”
In an instant, the words of my 2-year-old son transported me back to the first day I taught English.
The year was 2010. The place was a 45-minute bus ride from Sants Estacio station in Barcelona to a town I’ll never purposely visit again.
As a 32-year-old single guy, teaching a bunch of 6-year-olds how to say the word sandwich in English wasn’t what I had in mind when I bought a one-way ticket to the Catalan capital months prior.
But I was hungry. Literally. Two years earlier the father of my business partner in Central America wiped out my finances by stealing my house. Literally. What little money I had left was running out. Combine this with not having legal working papers and I had no choice but to trade in my dreams for a box of crayons and 7€ an hour cash-in-hand.
By the time I reached the school on my first day, I’d done a top job of convincing myself it’d be a massive time waste. “I used to manage a team of high-performing salespeople!” I reminded myself. “What good could possibly come from this?”
And don’t get me wrong, not much good did come from it. At least not initially. I wasn’t very good at the job. The director didn’t laugh when I had a brain lapse and told the kids “hi” was spelled “high.”
But when I began to write, a number of lessons from that experience (3 to be exact) made their way into my writing, and to my surprise, I began to move from making 7€ an hour as a sub-par teacher to earning somewhere around 13€ an hour as a semi-decent online writer.
Lesson #1: If you don’t engage your audience immediately, you lose them immediately
“Remember, Michelle — ESA — Engage! Study! Activate! It’s not that hard!”
I hated hearing these words from the director of the school. And I still don’t understand why she couldn’t get my name right — “MY KILL.” But I’ll be damned if writing the words “My favorite thing about today is nobody bit me!” didn’t make all the pills worth it.
It doesn’t matter if your audience is a group of 79 six-year-olds or six 79-year-olds, if you don’t get their attention quickly, your time is limited.
Thanks to the low attention span of the kids in the class, I moved from saying, “Okay, settle down kids! Today we are going to talk about numbers!” — to kicking things off by saying every person in America has 6 fingers.
- Think long and hard about your introductions as it shows you’ve taken the time to not waste your audience’s time.
- Play with your thoughts and put some of your most engaging lines first and craft your story around them to see how it looks.
- Try throwing them straight into the action then backtracking to weave in the backstory instead of going in chronological order.
- Steal a page from Sean Kernan and read the first lines of the books on your shelves and popular articles on the internet.
We’re all taking our own approach to different things. But never forget that we’re all in the same game: maximizing our reader’s experience.
Lesson #2 — Don’t throw balls people can’t catch
Can you imagine what the kids must have thought when I said the words “Settle down!” on my first day of class.
We’re talking about a room full of 6-year-olds who’d never studied English before.
What an asshole!
When it comes to speaking, if the person you are talking to doesn’t understand what you’re saying, that’s on you, not them.
The same rule applies in your writing — clear arguments laid out in simple language, win. Plus, thanks to the internet, our potential audience is the entire world and many readers aren’t native English speakers.
I never would have thought being an American living in Spain would play a role in making a living as a writer. But it makes perfect sense. When speaking in English to kids and adults, I have to talk in a way that doesn’t hurt their heads. Over time, this lesson in simplicity in verbal communication led to virality when I moved my words online.
By all means, if you love writing big words and throwing yourself into in-depth thought pieces, please keep doing that. The more I write the more I believe you’ve got to do whatever you can to extend the fun so it doesn’t feel like work.
But if your goal is to grow an audience and leave people with words they remember, keep both your language and the layout of your argument simple.
- Read writers with a reputation for telling the audience exactly what they need to know and not a word more.
- Listen to speeches from great speakers and take note of how they tell stories in a simple yet engaging way and pay special attention to how they transition from point to point to keep you hooked.
- Work on sending clear and concise emails at work or try to cut 1,000-word documents in half.
Easy reading is hard writing. But it’s worth the effort. Once you have that strong foundation down, it’s just a matter of learning how to eye the spots that have some extra meat on the bone to better entertain your audience.
Lesson #3 —Don’t botch the end game by writing a lazy conclusion
“These kids are rich which means their parents are angry. No matter how frustrated you get during class, make sure the kids have fun in the last 5 minutes. They’ll run into their parent’s arms with a smile on their face which in turn will save you from a ton of headaches.”
Pushing your energy levels in the last few minutes is gold advice for just about anything you do. As a writer, though, it’s especially valuable. I see people lose steam in their conclusion all the time. Then they ask why they aren’t getting engagement.
This advice may not appear in most “How to grow your audience” articles. But it should. In fact, a solid argument can be made it should be the first point. This is for the simple fact that most people engage with stuff once they’ve experienced the entire thing. You risk those ever-important claps, shares, and follows by wrapping up your work in a sloppy or hurried way.
- Package your best takeaway into a few bite-sized but memorable lines.
- Link it back to the story you had in the introduction so people replay the ride you took them on again.
- Get feedback on how you can use humor or inspiration so people feel smile on their way out the door.
People read online to feel something, to be entertained, or to learn something. Use this knowledge in your conclusions by leaving them with an interesting thought to chew on or something that elicits an emotional response.
The last impression is the impression. If you write your conclusion in a memorable way, you may find that you don’t have to market your work because other people are already sharing it.
With the exception of volunteering to read stories in English at my kid’s school, 10 years have passed since I last stepped foot in a kid’s classroom. I used to think I’d never do it again, but years later, I’m not so sure.
Writing this article and thinking back to those funny little kids served as a good reminder of the importance of putting yourself out into the world.
Get to know people with a different background than you.
Spend time with people of all ages.
Listen and learn from them.
As a writer, no job is a waste of time.
Everything is a potential story.
If this advice resonated with you, join me and a few writer friends for weekly writing tips and monthly video roundtables here.