The Freakonomics Guide to Making Boring Content Sexy

image of orange with skin of an apple

It’s easy to write about certain topics, like celebrities, or technology, or even social media. Everybody wants a piece of it.

But what if your passion is botany, supply chain logistics, or cognitive psychology?

How do you get noticed with a compelling story when your subject is … well … boring?

In the summer of 2006, an economics book was on the New York Time Bestseller list. The title was provocative and promised to be anything but a boring read.

Even my hero Malcolm Gladwell said, “Prepare to be dazzled.”

Since I really can’t stand economics (hated it ever since college), I skeptically handed over my $25 and took Freakonomics home.

From the very first page, I was treated to a wild ride through the most bizarre stories I’d ever encountered. I learned about cheating schoolteachers and self-sacrificing sumo wrestlers. Why drug dealers still live with their moms and how the KKK is like a real estate agent.

Every story taught a boring economic principle in a way that made me want more.

I realized that Freakonomics was an instruction manual for transforming boring blog posts into sexy must-read masterpieces.

Check it out:

People love “dot connectors”

Our world is getting more complicated by the second. Every day your readers are trying to get a handle on what happened yesterday, what’s happening now, and what will happen tomorrow. If you connect the dots for them, you can get popular in a hurry.

Freakonomics is built around connecting dots in an interesting way. For example, it’s long been an economic principle that almost every choice we make is connected to incentives. Pretty boring stuff — until author Steven Levitt used a story about daycare centers to show how some incentives backfire.

Since parents were showing up late frequently, the daycare center started a policy of a $3 fine to incentivize parents to show up on time. Unfortunately, the fine wound up incentivizing parents to pay $3 for an hour of babysitting and not feel guilty for showing up late!

Giving your reader’s these “aha” moments is a great way to keep them reading a so-called boring topic and have them asking for more.

Headlines still matter

Even with all of our shiny social media tools, good ol’ standby skills like writing a great headline still matter.

You can be a masterful storyteller and write killer posts, but you still lose if no one reads them.

Titles are the closest thing us writers have to a “silver bullet.” Don’t waste ‘em. Do you think that Freakonomics would have been a New York Times Bestseller with the title Aberrational Behavior and the Causal Effect of Incentives?

The quickest way to give your boring blog a facelift is to put some eye-hijacking power into your headlines. In fact, write your headline first, before you even start the rest of the post. It’s that important.

Numbers are a blogger’s best friend

One common complaint of blogs is that they can’t be taken seriously. We are accused of playing fast and loose with the facts and being weak on proof. It’s easy to avoid hard numbers and focus on writing the soft stuff, but Freakonomics shows that this is a mistake.

Many bloggers are afraid that statistics, equations, and hard facts will scare away our readers, but that’s not giving our readers enough credit. The problem isn’t the numbers — it’s that we stick numbers out there without a story.

Freakonomics uses numbers to reveal a hidden story. Levitt looked up the numbers on standardized tests for Chicago students. On the face of it, this was pretty boring data. This district got such-and-such a score, this district got such-and-such a score. Yawn.

Until those numbers revealed that teachers were cheating.

In some districts, teachers received salary boosts when their students performed better on standardized tests — motivating them to fill in a few additional correct answers for their students.

The story makes the numbers interesting. The numbers make the story credible. Give it a try.

Everyone loves a mystery

Why would a successful sumo wrestler throw a match? The obvious answer would be that he’s getting paid to do so, but Levitt quickly discovered there was a much more mysterious motivation that drove who won and who lost in Japan’s sumo contests.

The answer is buried in psychology, probability, and incentives, but the only thing that I care about is that there’s a mystery. Any mystery begs for gumshoe detective work. We can’t leave well enough alone and we want to know why — especially if someone else is going to do the legwork of figuring out the answer for us. That’s why the CSI series has spun off more offspring than a jackrabbit.

You can use this quirk of human nature to make your topic enticing. Look closely at your topic and uncover some old-fashioned mysteries. Now write a post that presents the mystery and leads your reader through the investigation to its incredibly satisfying conclusion.

Provide a better way to solve common problems

Freakonomics uses a powerful set of tools to explain the way the world works. By the end of the book, you can’t help but think that every problem imaginable can be solved with the right incentive, data analysis, or storytelling. When you’re finished you feel that there is a better way to tackle your problems.

This is what “added value” means. Simply restating a problem is boring. Offering new tools and perspectives to solve problems helps your reader get closer to their goals — and that makes you someone whose content they’ll want to read every time you come out with something new.

Freakonomics: The Movie is coming out soon, and I’ll be first in line — because reading the book was so valuable to me I can’t wait to see what else the authors have to offer. To get devoted fans who’ll anticipate your every output with the same enthusiasm, give them some solutions.

Time to get freaky

Have you ever used any of these techniques to make your content sexier? Can you see how to apply some of them to your own blog?

And if you read Freakonomics yourself, tell us in the comments about any other blog-enhancing tips you picked up!

Stanford obsesses about how to get passionate people’s blogs noticed and promoted at Pushing Social, except when he’s fishing with his boys. Follow him to get the latest about his new ebook “Get Noticed.”

Print Friendly

Smarter is Better Solutions for Smarter Content Marketing

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • 15 high-impact ebooks on content marketing, SEO, email marketing, landing pages, keyword research, and more.
  • A 20-part Internet marketing course that lays out a comprehensive path for your own online strategy.
  • An organized reference guide to the “best of the best” of Copyblogger.com, and how it all profitably fits together.
Free Registration

Take The Conversation Further ...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Meet us over on Google+ or Twitter to join the conversation right now!

Comments

  1. Good and informative post.

    Sex sells. So, following the guide above, that blog should sell as well. :)

    -Sajib
    http://aisjournal.com

  2. Great post and you really make me want to order that book right now :)

    I use a few of the techniques on a more or less regular basis. My favorite is story telling. It makes abstract concepts and data so much more relevant. I use it frequently when I create case studies where I take a concept (i.e using article marketing to drive more traffic to your blog) and then tell a story of what site I’m working on, why I’m using this approach and then showing them exactly what I’m doing step-by-step and sharing data along the way about how it’s working.

  3. Hey Stanford,

    In college, economics was my worst class out of all my business classes. Still today, I don’t want to hear anything about Micro or Macro.

    However, I really like how you put a twist in this story. It is about having compelling headlines and telling awesome stories to get a point across.

    Chat with you later…
    Josh

  4. I used time statistics recently to intrigue and pull readers into a post I wrote on my Personal Development site recently.

    Something that I read by Francis Flaherty an editor at the New York times was, “Every story needs a face.”

    We may not connect with the stats or facts but we connect with people so include the in your writing.

  5. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Great stuff, Stanford! I actually have given that book as a gift…and, I think part of the reason we bought it was the title (and all of the acclaim). Now, I need to go read it myself.

    Great analogy and excellent advice, Stanford. Congrats on the post!

  7. Well, it is true that it is the story and context that sells.

    In some cases people have problems to grab the context and why they should be bothered with the problem. If you explain and put it into context, the post gets different perspective already.

  8. I really like the analogy of the dot connectors. That just goes along with the reason that most people don’t want to buy philosphy. They just want to be handed the solution and not be bothered with having to put some of the puzzle together themselves.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  9. I actually have the book somewhere in my information heaven-will surely read it-Nice Post!

  10. Kevin Hakan Bouvier :

    I saw a screening of the movie last night, it had just enough to hold my attention – make me think – want more – but overall left me wanting more beef and less sizzle.

    Your blog about the book / movie (movie due out in theaters in Oct I think it is) was more interesting than the movie its self. I guess I was over all disappointed. Great info, but something did not resonate with me.

    Funny and timely how i ran across your post this AM – keep up the great work!

  11. My takeaway was MAKE IT MATTER. People want to know how it relates to them. Bring the abstract to the everyday. What’s in it for me? Why does it matter to me?

    Great book. I think there’s a second one out now.

  12. We’ve been looking for ways to make our corporate blog more interesting, so thanks a bunch for this tip! Picking up Feakonomics today. Sounds like a very interesting read.

  13. I dig the name Stanford.

    The book talks about different names among demographics and how name choice may effect life outcomes. I’d love to hear the story behind your name and how you feel this did or didn’t play into your life story. I love me some “name-o-nomics”.

  14. Thank you for your entertaining analysis. I am already thinking on how to make the figures talk.

  15. Excellent read—both Freakonomics and the above article. This is a common problem our clients have and it is up to their creativity and savvyness to make their information compelling to their targeted audience, enough to draw them in for engagement. Like Lain says,”Make it matter!”

  16. Stanford – Great post.

    This was one of my favorite books (and I’ll be seeing the movie as well) but it reminds me of storytelling and how you can reach across to others by relating a story they can understand and feel comfortable with. The stories in this book are all things we recognize and thus, we look at economics in a different light – - and such it is with blog content – - we can reach out to others with great stories and get our points across in new and defining way. Love your post!

  17. Headlines are the attention grabber that are so crucial in the effort to attract readers to your content. You said it perfectly when you made the point that you can be a wonderful storyteller or writer, but if you lack compelling headlines you won’t get the traffic. I think you do a great job of writing attention grabbing headlines, keep up the good work!

  18. If I can’t write an unconvention blog post about a topic, I simply won’t write it. I have to surprise my audience (and myself) every time I write.

  19. Great read Stanford! You put the value into this post by connecting the dots for me about writing. Sometimes the topics I write about may appear bland and dry, but I’m trying to connect the dots to my readers on a very basic level.

    Now I have some more techniques to spice up my posts!

    Thank you.

  20. I’m a first timer and I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I too believe titles are key, but here the spin through Freakonomic (which I haven’t read, but will thanks to this article) brings up another point. Irreverence, there’s nothing like giving the status quo a little kick in the shorts every now and then. I’m sure that Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt made a couple life long enemies exposing the subtext of the banal and getting the dirt, then sharing the results. All good stuff, I’ll be back, thanks.

  21. Guess I’d better go read my husband’s copy. I was also completely skeptical when he started talking about it at dinner one evening. I’m certainly on the lookout for new and creative ways to talk about my public speaking coaching service.

    Thanks,

    Lily

  22. @Stanford: ps. I just read a fascinating piece yesterday about how the Wizard of Oz was actually a story about economics and the money system. Fascinating read. http://www.webofdebt.com/excerpts/chapter-1.php

  23. Botany? Boring? Surely you jest! Perhaps you haven’t found the right author to bring it out for you – Consider Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire.”
    Great post, thanks. It sums up nicely what many authors have done for me in the past – inspired me to try harder to write compelling copy about topics I’m passionate about. Two others come to mind:
    Tracy Kidder, who makes easy reading of dry, complex topics, and Kevin Burke of the PBS programs “Connections” and a master of connecting the dots.
    Anyone else have other favorites?

  24. I am definitely gonna check out Freakonomics. You totally pulled us in with ‘sexy’ in the title. I am still connecting the dots :D

  25. Hi Stanford,

    I’m guessing the cliff hanger you left us with, regarding the reasons sumo wrestler’s throw matches, was intentional. Even if not, I’ll choose to believe it was subliminally presented there by you for us. (I love Malcolm Gladwell, too, BTW!) Guess I’ll have to go out and get Freakonomics now!

  26. Freakonomics is a must read and learnings can be applied to nearly every profession. I do hope your readers don’t think it’s a blog guide – but rather you have applied blog worthy tips from a very deep book.

    I also love their blog – can’t get enough. http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com

    • Hey Bobbie, ever read Predictably Irrational? That is another good behavioral economics book! It’s VERY applicable to marketing and consumer decision-making.

  27. I’ve been waiting for you to appear on these pages, Stanford, and I knew it was only a matter of time. Great first post!

    Freakonomics and all of Malcolm Gladwell’s stuff is right up my alley. The lessons apply to so many different areas of life, and the way they’re communicated is a real inspiration for anyone who writes.

  28. I need to get to the library and read that one! I love being the dot connector and will bring that forward more often in my posts. Thanks for the push to write better headlines – I read the linked post on that and I think I have been leaning towards the clever side recently and need to be more clear.

  29. Hi Stanford,

    I think headlines on my blog could use some work. I’ve been trying to use headlines that would convey to readers that the information inside is useful. However, I’m afraid that they’re still not very catchy. I’m going to try spending a few minutes each day, before writing any posts, to just think about potential headlines to use to add that dazzle element and make readers eager to find out more.

    I also haven’t been using numbers or statistics much in my posts, since many of my posts are based off of my past experiences and opinions. Creating a statistic-based blog entry would prove to be an interesting experience for me, since I don’t do it often. I’ll give it a try one day down the road and see how well it’s received.

    Overall, great article! By the way, I love the image used. A green apple with orange filling? Well, it definitely caught my eye!

  30. You’ve sold me on reading that book! I’ve already placed a hold on it on my library account. I noticed that there is also a book called Super Freakonomics, that one doesn’t have a waiting list so I’ll probably read it first. :)

    I think that I do need to work on jazzing up my headlines. I spend so much time on the content and finding the right pictures, but not too much time on the headlines.

  31. “The story makes the numbers interesting. The numbers make the story credible.”

    It’s a brilliant combination, and storytelling makes a huge difference when your topic isn’t conventionally sexy. (I write about grammar).

    I’ve learned that you don’t have to write “fiction” to tell a story, and with all the websites/blogs/products/services out there, “sexy content” is king.

    Thanks for the post, Stanford!

  32. Interesting story…

    It seems to me that everything revolves around the power of surprise.

    Everyone has their own beliefs about a reality (patterns). When you encounter any information that disrupts the patterns, you experience surprise. :) When you experience the surprise, you need to talk about that to others.

    It’s used by many bloggers as well as famous personalities. And it seems to me that it is used in this book.

    When Lady Gaga do something that disrupts a person’s patterns it leads to a buzz about Lady Gaga… When a blogger writes a unusual post, we talk about it. :)

    • Really good point Marko. When our pattern gets interrupted we definitely take notice. Although, it might be a bad pattern interruption….like your dog taking a shit in your new shoes. :)

  33. Great insight Stanford, This is what I should aim to do with my blogs; provide a better way to solve problems rather than restate them. I try to do that a lot with one of my blogs, but the other one needs a lot of working on in this area.

    I am yet to master the art of writing killer titles, but where I have been able to do so I have received a surge in the number of views but very little comments. I also need to embrace the use of numbers to give my posts further cerdibility.

  34. I was totally prepared to hate that book, and I enjoyed it so much! I lent it to someone, and I haven’t seen it since!

    Anyways, I’d like to thank you, Stanford, for encouraging bloggers to support their statements and conclusions. In this case, you emphasize numbers/stats. I’d add that in most cases, there is a source that should be cited or referenced to show that some thought and research was involved when a blogger is making an argument, trying to teach, or trying to build a reputation as a trusted authority in an area.

    I totally get annoyed with bloggers for being half-assed sometimes. Elevate the field, party people! Besides, there’s so much noise out there on the web. How is one gonna rise above it without some backup?

    • Melissa, I agree that some bloggers are half-assed. They make tremendous accusations, sometimes reiterating old myths and cliches – “we only use 10% of our brains.” A good blogger is a thorough researcher.

      On the flip side, instead of research, personal anecdotes or analogies can also be really effective if you can capture the readers imagination.

  35. Stanford, you did a great job connecting the dots between a bestseller and a blog. My tip? Be memorable. It’s been almost two years since I borrowed Freakonomics and zipped through it so I could return it.

    However, I remember most of the stories well enough to bring them up in conversation. (I particularly loved how the cheatin’ teachers were exposed.)

    If your blog comes up in conversation, then you’ve done your job.

    Cheers,

    Mitch

    • “If your blog comes up in conversation, then you’ve done your job.”

      That is a REALLY good point. You don’t want your blog to just be “sorta useful” or “kinda amusing,” you want it to blow people’s socks off so that want to send it to all their friends. That is REAL viral marketing.

  36. It’s good news that one can always get better. I like drawing inspiration for good content or writing style from off-beat places where one don’t expect it to come.

    Thank you.

  37. Your timing couldn’t be better, Stanford.

    I blog about software development and programming, and have struggled more than once to keep the boring stuff from my readers.

    Thanks for the advice!

  38. Many bloggers are afraid that statistics, equations, and hard facts will scare away our readers, but that’s not giving our readers enough credit. The problem isn’t the numbers — it’s that we stick numbers out there without a story.

    There’s a great book, similar to Freakonomics, by Micheal Blastland and Andrew Dilnot called “The Tiger That Isn’t” that shows how numbers are used, mostly by journalists and politicians, to skew stories, intimidate and, outright lie.

    It’s a great book and helps authors put stats and numbers into perspective.

    If you’re a blogger worried about using stats, I recommend this book to help you out.

    • Steve, that may be true, but then it would mean that posting disconnected statistics would actually make your posts more effective, which is the opposite of what the Freakonomics chapter was saying.

  39. Thanks Stanford for this interesting post.

    I think it is so true that there are certain subjects that lend themselves to being interesting.

    I have a business blog – and I’m in an industry where so many blogs seem to just be keyword stuffing and/or seriously boring to read. I live in an area that is far out of the mainstream and so getting noticed is a daily battle – in the massive flood that is the blogosphere.

    Your article was really relevant to me because I have been thinking a lot about how to tackle a subject matter that is a little more prone to being… boring.

    Have I ever used any of these techniques to make your content sexier – well, I’m working on it.

  40. Love the connect the dots theory and will definitely have to order this book!

    Thanks!

  41. Great post and one that can be utilized! As another commenter said, ‘sex sells’ even when the content isn’t sexy.

  42. I will try to pick up the book soon.

    I think one of the main things that helps to make the boring things a little less boring is the genuine excitement some people have them. I’ve read several blogs from people who seem to have a real passion for what they are writing about and it does make a difference.

  43. I think that this idea of storytelling and relating interesting facts is a very powerful technique, and I know that Freakanomics is not the only bestseller to capitalize on the idea.

    That being said, the facts are the most crucial part of using storytelling to relate to your topic. If you don’t have your facts straight, all the storytelling in the world won’t save your blog. Always check your facts before posting, and you will be able to boost your clicks a whole lot faster.

  44. Great post, Stanford. A really good writer can make their subject relatable and you’ve illustrated this very well. All you guys who like Freakonomics might also like The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life by Tim Harford – he brilliantly takes obscure concepts and shows how actually they are about how people treat each other, what motivates them, what makes them greedy and what makes them behave honestly. A good writer can make you surprised you were interested in their subject.

  45. Stanford,

    I loved that book. I got the audio book version so I could listen to it in my car. I am a bit of an economics freak so I found it exceptionally interesting. I really liked when they went into the economics of drug dealing and how population changes affected crime.

    I have tried repeatedly to apply that kind of out-of-the-box thinking toward this online world. Doing so has helped me to uncover motivations and intent behind people’s actions. I feel this has made me better as a marketer. Human nature is somewhat predictable if you think about it. People generally act in their own self interest. There is no point fighting that. You are much better off rolling with it and finding a way to create an incentive for them to do your bidding.

    • Hey Kathy, I am a big economics buff too, although i have yet to read Freakonomics. I like other behavioral books like “Predictably Irrational” and “More Sex Is Safer Sex.”

      By the way, are you familiar with the Austrian school of economics. They look at economics through the “logic of human action,” and how our choices reflect our preferences and values. It’s a very interesting sub-school of economic academia. Look up Ludwig von Mises.

      Great post Stanford,
      Steven

    • “Human Nature is Predictable” – I used to think so – until I had kids. :)

  46. Stanford,

    That’s an awesome post… You have brought out a new perspective to running a blog and writing blog posts. I have been long waiting to read the Freakonomics and here is one another reason to grab my copy.

    Thanks again and the post rock!

  47. Just seeing you wax lyrical about Freakonomics has me all interested in it. You are right about presenting new perspectives of looking at old, boring problems.

    And the mystery part is really important. Good fiction writers know how to keep readers on edge and entice them to finish the book in one sitting to sort out the mystery.

  48. Well said. These tips go for good fiction writing too, whether a short-short or a novel. Even poems and songs follow many of these concepts. Never underestimate the value of a good hook and a good twist. Thanks, peace,

    Diane

  49. I really like the techniques. I also like the catchy headline. That was really slick , eye-catching and innovative.

  50. I’m a bit of a frequent viewer here. I keep checking back to see how else I can improve my writing. I’ve always been bad with words and have struggled to make content that makes sense. So happy that copyblogger is here because it’s really good reading for helping to improve the quality of your writing.

    I’ve got to write about alot of boring repetitive content so it’s hard to keep it fresh and not repeat the same style over and over. I’m going to be trying out the dot connectors mystery style for my next articles Thanks again! :)

    • I agree Jade, I am going to start coming here more often to bring my writing to the next level.

      I’m actually the opposite of you because I come up with great ideas often, but I can never articulate them as well as I want to.

  51. Headlines and Subject lines are something that we focus on heavily in our marketing efforts.

    Writing great content without a good headline or subject line is like buying a great fishing pole and forgetting to use good bait.

    Cheers.

  52. So you did it with Freakonomics, well there are some very good tips in this post that can change as you say a boring content to an attractive one.

  53. I have yet to read Freakonomics, but I’ve really enjoyed other books on behavioral economics like “Predictably Irrational” and “More Sex is Safer Sex.”

    Did you know they are making a Freakonomics movie for theaters?

    Also, I definitely agree with the bit about statistics. They give you credibility, but they have to be related to the message of the post in a colorful way.

    Good post Stanford,

    Steven

  54. Hi, Stanford.
    I have a BA in Business (it is to say I took 4 economic classes and detested them all) and I have a BA in Advertising. And advertising was a hell lot more fun than most of my business classes, statistics included.

    I have been meaning to read Freakonomics since I do love the title, but the “nomics” part in the end still scares me. So I keep pushing it to the end of my “to-read” list. I guess it is time to face my fears and educate myself while having fun. And I have loved Gladwell since The Tipping Point, so I’ll push it down no longer.

    Thanks for the post. Can’t wait to apply your and Freakonomics tips to my blog!