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My sophomore year of college I took a 200-level biology class about exercise. I had to take several natural science classes to fulfill my general education requirement, even though I wanted to do nothing but hang out in the theater building. I hoped that because the class was about exercise, I would find it interesting.
The professor of this class spent each session lecturing to about 100 college students on biological systems and processes that were only relevant to exercise in the way that all of biology is relevant to, well, something.
Though a case can be made that I was merely a disengaged college student who hadn’t yet learned to be curious about metabolic processes in cells and the seasonal adaptability of the endocrine system, I can at least anecdotally prove that I was not alone in my stupor. About two-thirds of the way into the semester, the professor started class not by lecturing but by reprimanding all of us.
“I was talking to my wife last night about why none of you seem to ever be paying attention,” he said to us. “And my wife simply said, “they don’t care!'”
This was his explanation for why he looked out at a sea of slack-jawed, glazed over faces every day. We didn’t care about the biology of exercise. If we could plant ourselves on a college campus and enter classrooms five days a week to learn, our disengagement must be because we didn’t care about his subject, right?
No, professor. That’s not what it was at all.
The value of content
It might seem somewhat incongruent to read a story about an undergraduate biology class on Entrepreneur. Surely this is not the place to be reading about metabolism in cells, right?
The point of that story, of course, is to highlight the general stupor of the college students. Imagine you were pitching your services to a Fortune 1000 company and looking to stand out amongst the competition, presenting to a venture capital firm to get funding for your startup, or putting together a sales funnel with a webinar or a video sales letter.
In every one of these scenarios, you’re creating content.
And in every one of these scenarios, if the audience member cares as much about your content as that group of college students did about that biology class, then you will have likely wasted considerable time creating that content and could have been doing something far more productive and helpful to your business.
The larger theme that pervades pitches, funnels and even straight-up presentations at conferences is the more essential act of persuading others of the value of an idea. The success of the content will be defined by the extent to which recipients of that content have been indoctrinated by the end.
As a result, the importance and necessity of being persuasive has ensured that one statement is often repeated among entrepreneurs.
The statement that “content is king.”
This is a phrase that became embedded in our culture way back in the 1990s, when Bill Gates included it in an essay with the phrase as the title. What is implied by the idea of content being king is that having an omnipresence — content on a multitude of platforms so as to be seen everywhere — will make a difference. Gates rightly predicted that there would eventually be an enormous breadth of information, and as such, it would take a high volume of content to stand out.
Many have since interpreted this to be the idea that if exposure to content matters, then it’s simply important to blast the world with one’s content. More ads, more social media posts, more blasts to email lists, more of everything. Many have equated the veneration of content as king to the premise that volume equals success.
But here is where we return to the incredulous biology professor. For 150 minutes a week, he saturated the room with his meandering lectures and was met with stone-faced college students. Consider your own personal equivalent of the biology professor: A high school math teacher who droned on for 180 days of the school year, a corporate trainer who read from a manual throughout your two-hour orientation, a sales representative who spent an hour listing dozens of features of the product his company wanted to sell to your own.
In any of these cases, does their volume equal success?
What if volume isn’t the only determining factor? What if a person consuming our content doesn’t need quite so much saturation if the content inspires them to actually care about what’s being written or said? And what if there’s one thing that can make or break content’s quality — regardless of the format being used?
The mistake made by most content creators
I am often humbled by how recently I failed at attracting others to my work. In August 2017 — when I was already 40 years old — I drove for Lyft just to make ends meet. This is despite the fact that I had enjoyed a number of accomplishments prior that that point in time, including helping clients get six-figure book deals with major publishers.
Why was my career such a mess by that stage of life? I didn’t have any marketing.
And yet, everything was different by October 2017. I made a pretty solid living — about six times what I had been making driving for Lyft — helping public speakers create their signature talks. In the span of less than two months everything changed.
I had attempted to build marketing funnels in the past but had been unsuccessful. What I didn’t understand then was that the power of our marketing is defined by how well we speak to the pain that our target market experiences.
For example, prior to 2017 I had only ever positioned myself to help authors write their books and book proposals because of my time working at the book publishing company Penguin. It wasn’t until 2017 that I decided to match my expertise with helping public speakers, and that’s when everything shifted.
But it didn’t shift because I said, “You should let me help you with your speech” or “I help people create their signature talks.” It shifted because I spoke to the pain of what it feels like to be standing in a room in front of hundreds of people who keep looking at the phones or otherwise glaze over at what the speaker is saying. I spoke to their impostor syndrome; that they often felt like a fraud on stage.
What’s more, I didn’t know very much about funnel optimization or split-testing or anything like that, and I was therefore ill-equipped to iterate things in a meaningful and productive way.
But it turns out I didn’t need to. The funnel was instantaneously effective. I generated more sales conversations than I could even handle, and I didn’t even have to change it. And this happened because of how attuned the content was to a speaker’s pain.
This is something that capable copywriters and marketers have always understood but almost no one else seems to grasp — that appealing to the pain that our audience experiences day-to-day draws them into our world of expertise.
If you’ve ever studied copywriting, you might have heard of a very famous advertisement conceived of by Max Sackheim, an advertising executive and co-founder of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Way back in the early 20th Century, he conceived of a campaign with the headline “Do you make these mistakes in English?” The campaign advertised a program that could help people improve their speaking with only 15 minutes of work per day. What is often spoken of in regards to this campaign, though, is that they tried unsuccessfully for 40 years to beat it as a control — they threw everything they had up against it, and it outperformed everything for four decades. A common interpretation is that the headline about “these mistakes in English” does an expert job of drawing people in and compelling them to read the ad, because they don’t want to be guilty of whatever mistakes are mentioned in the ad.
Sackheim’s ad is a popular example of this tradition of attracting people through the painful emotions they wish to avoid.
In contrast, what that biology professor and nearly every other expert I’ve ever seen has done is to speak or write about their content in the context of their stuff: They talk about their product or service right out the gate in their marketing, or offer a summary of their book in the opening pages, or introduce their system at the beginning of their keynote speech. On several occasions I’ve been asked to offer “learning objectives” at the start of a presentation, and most other presentations I’ve seen have begun with something similar. In general, these folks tell us what they’re going to say, say it, and then tell us what they just said.
But this is a mistake. And it’s overlooking a simple but powerful possibility.
Why people are so prone to glazing over
It might make sense to assume that people disengage from content because they’re simply bored and leave it at that. Of course a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds are going to glaze over during a biology lecture, that’s what happens!
But it turns out that other things are happening beneath the surface of any given recipient of content that will greatly define our ability to persuade them of the content’s ideas.
“Humans are hard-wired for threat detection,” says Dr. Kemia Sarraf, a physician, trauma-mitigation specialist, and adjunct assistant professor in the office of equity, diversity, and inclusion at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. “And it is worth noting that the brain doesn’t differentiate between physical and social threat — both are interpreted and processed the same way. A teacher doesn’t have to be physically menacing to activate a student’s threat detection system.
“Once activated by a real or perceived threat, the brain reacts to ensure survival. In this state, we cannot receive, understand or retain complex information; the system is too concerned with staying alive. Because most of us have, at some point, experienced a legitimately high-threat learning environment, the creation of safety is key to getting the brain ready to receive and interpret information.”
If, as Sarraf suggests, our audience is unconsciously scanning their surroundings for threats, this means that our content is going to be unsuccessful if we seem oblivious to their experience. Their default state is to protect themselves, and they will tune us out if we fail to send them a very simple but profound message:
“I understand you.”
Our content will only ever be successful if we somehow use language that speaks to what they’re experiencing and thus demonstrate to them that they are seen. If someone watches a public speaker and tunes them out to scroll on their phone, it’s because they don’t feel that the speaker is there for them. If someone sits down to watch a webinar, they’ll turn it off because it doesn’t convince them that watching it will get them to overcome an obstacle they’re currently facing in their professional or personal life.
What we can infer from this concept is that people aren’t interested in other people’s solutions, expertise, product or services. They’re interested in being safe. They’re interested in feeling good in the experience of their own lives.
Imagine a person who wants to feel better in their life, be it because they want to be physically healthier, more successful, or some other feeling that is a pleasant departure from the struggle they have always known. Now imagine an expert who comes along with all of their jargon, cleverness and some sort of system that they’ve codified by working with a series of clients, patients or other recipients of their know-how.
The expert might be able to solve all sorts of problems when presented with the immediacy of any given recipient when they can customize it to that particular recipient’s situation. In contrast, when they create content they must put that value in a bottle and distribute it without having a direct hand in the experience. When they lead with their stuff — when they start with their jargon, their system or their assessment of the situation, they’ve forgotten what it’s like not to know something.
They’ve failed to help their audience to feel understood.
What these experts believe is that content is king, that more content showing off more of their expertise equals more value.
But actually, the word content is off by a letter. In order for an expert’s content to be consumed in a way that ensures their message gets out, they must prime their audience to want to hear from them. They must somehow craft an experience that helps the audience feel that they’re understood, which will help them to feel safe with the content creator and thus invested in nurturing that connection.
This means that it is not content that is king, but rather context.
People are most likely to embrace a solution when it’s provided within the context of a problem they care about solving.
If a consultant is meant to help a company to improve their communication, they’ll benefit from first speaking to the pain the managers of that company experience because their teams are disengaged and not doing their work. If a dietitian is meant to help people live a healthier life, they’ll benefit from first speaking to the guilt and shame that people feel when they binge on desserts late at night. And if a financial advisor is meant to help people to properly plan for their future, they’ll benefit from speaking to how difficult it is to delay gratification with existing funds in favor of something that hasn’t happened.
Copywriters understand this, but few others do. And yet, when an entrepreneur, expert or speaker makes this simple shift in the opening of their content — when they create context — their audience suddenly feels much safer than they had the moment before.
At this point they’ll be available to receive whatever it is you offer.
Below I’ve offered three ways to create context for your audiences so that they are primed to receive whatever it is you have to share with them.
1. State the problem as they experience it
The absolute simplest way to draw your audience in is to start with the problem as your audience experiences it. Speak to the pain that they have when they get up in the morning, or explore what haunts them as they brush their teeth at night. This is what I did early in this article when I spoke to the problem you will have if your audience doesn’t care about your content like what happened in that biology class.
Not only that, but lean into the specific, detailed interpretation of that problem. If you’re a dietitian and an expert in nutrition, rather than rely on generic, “Do you have issues with food…?” kind of language, paint an explicit picture of what those issues look like. This might read as something like, “Many people struggle with binge-eating at night, often having a great amount of discipline with their food intake throughout the day but then descending into a spiral of shame as they consume large amounts of unhealthy food right up until bedtime…” People don’t tend to relate to their own lives through broad generalities but rather specific moments that feel a particular way. You will be more likely to reach them when you speak to that specificity.
If you don’t know what your audience cares about, ask. Write your email list and find out what problem they have. Test the click-through rates on different promoted Tweets or on different Facebook ads, and see which problem drives the most traffic. Become religious about understanding their world as they experience it — not how you understand it as an expert.
If you do nothing else, speak to their pain. They will feel safer with you in response.
2. Start with a story
A number of years ago my father was a substitute teacher after having retired from a career teaching full-time. He was frustrated because as a sub he didn’t get a key to his classroom for the day and had to wait in the hallway with the students for the custodial staff to let him in. He was not only embarrassed by this, but felt that it undermined his authority as a member of the faculty.
When he taught full-time he would often be a rabble-rouser, working with the teacher’s union to give the administration a hard time. In this spirit of this tendency, he was inclined to send an email to the school principal demanding that he get a key.
I had him do something different. When he sent the email, it started with the sentence “We are a group of substitute teachers concerned for the students’ safety.” He then went on to refer back to a lockdown that had happened in the school the previous year and how a number of students had asked to go to a classroom in which the teacher could lock the door because they felt vulnerable. The following day, the principal saw him in the hall and said, “I hear you, let’s meet.” Shortly thereafter the substitute teachers got their keys.
What I just did is a tried-and-true way to create context for whatever it is you have to offer — to tell the story of a person who struggles with the same problem your audience is experiencing. In this case I told the story of my father, who wanted to influence a colleague but faltered in his ability to do so. But through the work we did together he overcame that problem, which builds credibility for what I aim to teach through the story. And at the same time, because stories draw people in emotionally, it served to create compelling context.
If you’re putting together a presentation, a pitch, a video, a webinar or anything else, a simple but powerful way to create emotionally significant context for your audience is to start with a story of a person who has the problem you’re there to help your folks to solve. From there, they’ll be invested in hearing whatever else you have to say.
3. Present a real-time problem to be solved
Back in seventh grade, my science teacher put a series of letters on the board:
O T T F F S S E N T
She asked us to figure out what the significance of these letters were. Some students guessed that there was a pattern in the relationship between vowels and consonants. Others guessed that it had something to do with how some letters were in pairs while others weren’t.
No one guessed what it actually was, though.
Below the letters, she wrote out the following: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
I still remember the gasps of realization — and embarrassment.
This bit that she did is an example of creating a real-time problem — some kind of puzzle, game or other interactive situation that immediately draws the audience in to participate alongside the person presenting the content. It arouses curiosity, thus engaging several different parts of the brain and therefore makes it more likely to get the audience invested.
Participating in a puzzle or another problem gives the audience member a goal, and they will therefore become emotionally invested in whether or not they solve the mystery, win the game or otherwise see the experience to a satisfying end.
This is, of course, a more ambitious tool, for while it is immediately engaging it is easy for the experience itself to distract from the larger point being made — which would then mean it’s not actually offering context at all. I once attended a conference where the keynote speaker created a wildly fun-loving and uproarious game for us all to play at the start of his speech, but then didn’t really connect that back to his larger message. In contrast, in his famous TED Talk “The Puzzle of Motivation,” author Dan Pink presented what is known as “the candle problem,” a puzzle for how to get a candle to be affixed to a nearby wall. He explicitly connected the act of solving that problem to the issue of motivating workforces, but before he did that he took the audience through the experience of trying to solve the problem in real time.
The problem solved in the puzzle or game somehow needs to prime the recipient of the content for whatever is meant to be learned or understood. My 7th grade teacher was teaching us about the importance of choosing simple solutions over complicated ones. Solving the puzzle was about the broader insight and not the puzzle itself.
This device can be used in any number of ways, such as in a talk like Dan Pink did, a pitch or a workshop. It could even be used in an article like this one; for a moment, you might very well have been invested in solving the letter puzzle if you hadn’t seen it before.
Making context king
Of course, these aren’t the only ways to create context for your audience. If you’re giving a live presentation you could create a real-time survey with your audience using software like Slido or Eventify. Asking for feedback and opinions is another way to get people invested right away. However, unlike the other three devices mentioned above, I’m not able to make an example of it right here and now in the article.
But no matter what, remember the biology professor when you’re setting out to create content of your own. If he had spent even just a couple of minutes at the top of any given lecture connecting the dots between our experience and the world of knowledge he sought to share with us, we would have been much more invested.
We would have felt safer, cared more and not ever been accused of apathy by him and his wife.
Having large volumes of content may be serviceable as a whole, but becoming a master of context will ultimately define your success.
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