Engage readers with ‘emotionally naked’ writing
Sometimes one experience brings realizations that can have a positive effect on the rest of your life. I recently had such an experience, and I believe the insights I gained will help me in my career going forward. Perhaps they might help you, too.
The experience involves a recent column I wrote about my struggles with depression. After the column was published, I spent days fielding emails, phone calls and social media comments from fellow advisers. They wanted to thank me for being honest, show me their support and share their own stories of depression and how it affected them.
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It was overwhelming and heartwarming. As I sat back and reflected on everything, I began to understand why this piece had caused so much more engagement than others, and how my future writing — and maybe yours — should be adjusted.
My column has typically focused on practical tips young advisers can take, or timely pieces on the state of our industry. Depending on the topic, I may field a handful of responses and questions.
OPENING THE FLOODGATES
When I changed my focus to a personal, real-life story, the communication floodgates opened. People connected to the story, as they found themselves being represented by my words. They resonated with the pain on the page and how it seemed to reflect their own experience, whether it took place yesterday or decades before.
By allowing myself to be emotionally naked on the page, I welcomed a previously unknown group of people into my world.
When you want to connect with readers, it can really help if you use your personal experiences. For example, if you write about clients increasing contributions to their 401(k)s, explain what made you do so with your own retirement fund, or talk about what you’ve lost by not doing so sooner.
Our clients don’t expect perfection, but they do expect us to be honest about our own experiences. If you can show some vulnerability in how you write, and give some personal perspective to a practical situation, the engagement with the topic should increase.
I have countless tales to tell of how depression has affected my life over the past 12 months — far more than can be covered in a 1,500-word column. I have stories that involve fellow professionals, current clients and interactions with strangers.
But the quality of the story is more important than the amount of words. By explaining my situation succinctly, and making sure it read well, I was able to connect with readers and have them understand my situation. They were able to identify with the scenario without my giving them more examples just to emphasize the point.
SAY IT SUCCINCTLY
The same idea goes for how we all write to clients. We are dealing with shortened attention spans due to the internet and a society obsessed with instant gratification. As a writer, you have a short time to capture someone’s attention, and an even shorter time in which to keep it.
In using the example about encouraging clients to increase their 401(k) contributions, the advice can be captured in 500-750 words, like so:
- Explain the topic.
- Include your own personal story.
- Explain what happens if they make the change (use positive, not negative, reinforcement).
- Explain how to do this in succinct steps.
- Adhere to the guidelines of “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then remind them of what you just said.”
This same topic could be illustrated in a white paper exploring all the ramifications of not making increased contributions, what retirement looks like with less money, which funds to choose when making these contributions, the tax consequences of doing so, etc.
But that’s not how to craft effective, engaging writing. You’re aiming to connect with your audience and influence behavior. By being brief, personable and encouraging, that should happen with more frequency.
HAVE AN EXPLICIT CALL TO ACTION
When I wrote for a previous company, they insisted that, at the end of every blog post, I should include my contact details and an invitation to readers to connect. It seemed redundant to me to do this, seeing as my bio was on another page.
What I didn’t realize is that readers of the blogs want the easiest way to interact. By providing my email address at the end of the article – even though it was on countless other areas of the website — it enabled readers to connect through the least amount of clicks. If a topic might trigger discussion, I have let people know I am open to discuss it, and engagement has increased as a result.
Look at your website or the platform where you writing exists. While your writing might feature great content, is it easy for them to contact you? Is there an invitation to email you with questions or comments?
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If you’d rather they not email you, is there a way to engage readers with a free report, additional articles or something else they will value? If your content exists without any option for follow-through, then it might not result in a lot of engagement.
In this case, the design features of your website are also important. Is it made explicit on the site where people can get more information? Is a report available for download prominently displayed in graphic form, or is it a hidden link?
More important, is the site formatted for easy mobile navigation, as that’s where online traffic is trending? Engagement has to be made very easy, and that includes making everything on your site as clear as possible.
GO WITH YOUR TRUE CONVICTIONS
Are you writing to your readers and expressing an opinion you think they want to hear? Or are you writing based on theory, research and your own convictions?
Taking our 401(k) example, if you are fan of a company’s 401(k) choices and expenses, you may be in a tough position when writing about choices in retirement. Your audience may be expecting to hear that they should roll their money into an IRA, because that’s what every other source says.
But if you stick with your conviction that their particular 401(k) is the best place to leave the funds, and back it up with facts, you may win over more readers through your honesty.
A column I wrote in December 2014 challenged the longevity of 100% virtual adviser-client relationships. This approach was championed by a membership group in our community, but it was one that I saw had fundamental flaws.
I could have written a piece that encouraged the approach, but in sticking to my truth and not writing for the readers, I outlined its flaws and expressed my true viewpoint.
The column created a lot of discussion on social media, and led to various spinoff pieces that challenged my viewpoint. Not one to be swayed by an opposing opinion, I continued engaging in discussions until the topic itself was overtaken by another.
MAKE YOUR ENDING MEMORABLE
Have you ever read a post that doesn’t really have an ending? The whole piece just falls flat and can make the content forgettable. Your reader has stuck with you until the end of your post, and it is now time to finish strong.
A story can end things nicely. While the main portion of your post can be actionable or theoretical, by using a story to close, you can increase engagement as the tone of your writing changes.
You could break your piece up and link to another blog post that covers the next part of the topic you’ve been discussing. Better still, why not find a fun fact that relates to your content and can encourage people to act? For a 401(k) piece, this may be something like:
My first planning position at age 24 paid me $32,000 per year and I left to start my own practice six years later at the age of 30 with a final of salary of $62,000. If I had contributed 10% of my paycheck (with no match) towards my retirement in those six years earning an average return of 8%, and then didn’t make another contribution until retiring at age 65, my 401(k) would be worth approximately $600,000. While this seems impressive, when adjusting for inflation, this amount is only worth $200,000. Aggressive and continued savings are important. Keep striving to increase your savings rate each year.
Or for a piece about writing, a link like this:
“According to a Slate.com article in June 2013 using research from Chartbeat, only 20% of people will read an article all the way through.”
For those of you still here, thank you.