I admit it; like just about everyone, part of me still clings to the fantasy that if I just make awesome stuff, and keep on making more of it, somehow I’ll get discovered (how? by whom?), and my work will sell gangbusters (where? how?) without me having to lift a finger. The audience’s attention will naturally gravitate towards the work. I’ll make so much money that I can just sit back and plan my next amazing work…on my own schedule.
In case you’re like me, I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but that’s never going to happen.
The No. 1 thing most people want to know right after, “how do I find the focus to finish my ambitious creative project” is, “how do I get people out there in the world to see—and buy—my work?” People write me all the time with questions about how to build visibility and how to go pro and make money.
For a lot or people, learning how to build an audience is one of the most baffling, overwhelming, difficult hurdles in a creative career. (And by “audience,” I mean not just a social media following, but a tribe of committed fans who will buy your work and help spread the word about the awesome stuff you’re doing.)
What Ira Glass knows about grabbing the audience’s attention
This American Life, Planet Money, Snap Judgment, 99% Invisible…The producers from these shows, who I interviewed for my book Out On the Wire, do many things extremely well.
Way up there on the list, though, is they are incredibly good at finding a hook in a story.
Maybe the word “hook” isn’t quite right. That makes it sound like something shallow, just a trick. But whatever you call it, Ira Glass has told me, this is the thing they talk about the most in story meetings. What is the story really about? What sets it apart? What makes it special? The hook of a story is what gets you to listen, and it’s what keeps you listening.
There’s something at the core of the story that sets it apart, that makes it not just another love story, or touching family drama, or funny riff, or complex investigation, or tale of political downfall, or financial exposé. There’s something so compelling, so unusual, so fascinating, so…strange, that you can’t turn off the radio (AKA pause the podcast).
You have to know.
The hook is what raises a very good story to the level of a truly great one.
And these producers find that kind of hook at the heart of, not one, but many stories. Every. Single. Week.
Alex Blumberg of Gimlet Media even codified a tool for excavating the best hook for a story, with his XY Story Formula.
Why do I bring this up? Because finding the hook is not about inventing something amazing about the story. The story already contains amazingness, or they wouldn’t be working so hard on it.
Finding the hook is about crystalizing that amazingness, and communicating it to us, the audience.
Finding the hook that will resonate with listeners finding means empathizing deeply with them, understanding what they care about and what moves them, and then speaking to that deep interest. In other words, these producers have a compelling answer to the potential listener’s question, “What’s in it for me?”
I’ve got a dirty little secret for you: that communication, where Ira Glass shows you exactly what’s in his story for you in such a compelling way that you are unable to ignore it?
I know, I know. Perish the thought. But whether you’re a fan of TAL or not, I don’t think anyone would accuse the producers of having low standards and trying to flog garbage. No one thinks they’re “sales-ey” or sleazy.
On the contrary, finding the hook, figuring out that core message, what makes the story compelling to listeners, is actually key in making the story better artistically as well.
Every time I’ve gone through this process myself, to refine my messaging for a given project so that I can use it in marketing the work, it’s actually helped me understand what the work is about, communicate about that better, and create more helpful material (like blog posts, talks, workshops) based on that work.
Figuring out the marketing messages for a work is a creative, generative act. It helps clarify the core of the art, what my artistic vision is, and… am I getting that across? If I’m not, well, how can I get it across?
There’s nothing particularly honorable or wonderful or artistic in ignoring what your audience feels and understands as you’re making your thing. You can make work better by working through what people are getting from it. You can home in on what’s working in a project… by putting it through its paces for marketing.
It’s not a question of pandering by changing your vision, or prettying it up or tricking people by pretending your work is something it isn’t, and it’s not about flogging crap one wants and needs. Your work isn’t crap.
You can follow in the footsteps of the best producers in the world. You can figure out what your work is saying, and figure out who wants to hear it. You can use tools to spread the word and build a tribe around your work in a way that feels organic and solid and true to you.
When you build that audience, you can feel fantastic about marketing your work, because you know the people listening care deeply.
Watch this video lesson to learn how to use Alex Blumberg’s XY Story Formula to find the hook in your work!
So, where do those good story ideas come from? Check out part 1 of the Story Building series, based on Out on the Wire.
Your work could be transformational for so many people...
if only they knew about it.
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