Three Basic Elements of Content that Spreads

Image of Vintage World Map

Have you ever asked yourself why a specific blog post stopped you dead in your tracks?

Did you truly feel the author’s pain?

Maybe the post was so captivating that you shed a tear, finished the entire piece, and left a comment thanking the blogger for sharing his story and changing your perception.

There are patterns at play here. Patterns that I ignored for too long.

You might be ignoring these elements — and one in particular — and your content marketing may be suffering for it.

I’ve made it a bit of a mission to study these patterns, and I’ve found at least three specific elements that can help you write remarkable content that readers love and share …

1. Vulnerability

Brené Brown — author of The Gifts of Imperfections and famous for her insightful TEDxTalks — is known for her discoveries about the powers of vulnerability.

Vulnerability in writing is a willingness of the author to be transparent.

When you’re vulnerable, you can tell your story wholeheartedly and honestly. Dr. Brown explains that vulnerability allows us to develop authentic connections with one another; and connection is what humans are all about — it’s the reason why we’re here in the first place.

Examples?

You may be familiar with Jon Morrow’s post, On Dying, Mothers, and Fighting For Your Ideas, or Brian Clark’s The Snowboard, the Subdural Hematoma, and the Secret of Life.

Take a good look at why these posts are so captivating.

Why is it that almost every comment starts with the words, “Wow?” It’s because they tell their story without holding anything back. They are vulnerable to their audience, provide value, and tell a truly compelling tale.

2. Storytelling

Stories enchant your readers.

Storytelling (along with a solid headline and an engaging first sentence) sets a rhythm in motion to allow your readers finish what they had started.

Take a look at Dr.Brown’s TEDTalk, or read one of those two posts linked above. They follow two of the elements we’re discussing: vulnerability and storytelling.

From my perspective — after reading those posts multiple times and watching that video an innumerable amount of times — what it feels like is an honest, heart-to-heart conversation. I can’t help but lean in and pay attention.

One of my best and most-shared blog posts was about the nine unforgettable lessons I learned attending Seth Godin’s 3-day intensive seminar in July 2012.

Arriving home, I knew I had to write about it, but I was also scared. How could I encapsulate my experience in one post? And how could I write a concise post that didn’t undervalue my experience?

Naturally, after having realized these patterns of vulnerability and storytelling, I embraced it — regardless of how frightening it may have been to start out of nowhere.

I imagined the reader sitting directly across from me, and told him the story in simple, direct, compelling language. I just talked to my reader like I would speak to one of my best friends.

The results? Seth linked to my post, it was shared by thousands of people, and the emails came flooding in thanking me for sharing my experience so honestly — I was even asked to speak at the National Center for Student Leadership in 2013 (which, of course, I accepted.)

The concoction of vulnerability and storytelling is a force to be reckoned with.

Ignore these two elements at your own peril.

3. Why?

People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.
~ Simon Sinek

Why is Copyblogger your home base for online content marketing insight, rather than one of the thousands of other blogs on the Web?

In his now famous TEDTalk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, Simon Sinek explains the golden circle.

In the middle (the smallest part) is the “Why.” Why do you do it?

The second, the “How.” How do you do it?

And the largest, most easiest part to identify is the “What.” What do you do?

His talk explains that in order to get others to take action — vote for you, buy your product, spread your message — you must clearly communicate “Why you do what you do.”

The reason why many are so entranced by Apple is because their “Why” is the desire to challenge the status quo.

How? By designing and creating sleek, gorgeous, user-friendly devices accessible by everyone.

And the “What they do” is create computers (large and small), and software, which of course, is the easiest to identify.

So what is it? Why do you do what you do? Why should we believe in your message? How do I not only feel a part of your journey, but also accept it as my own?

The moment you can clearly communicate your “Why,” your vulnerability and storytelling will fortify your platform, ideas, and the spreading of your message.

Practice the skill and turn it into a habit

Storytelling and vulnerability won’t always come easily.

Clearly identifying the “Why” factor will take time to develop and communicate — it may even change from time to time.

But if you don’t start now, then when?

Embracing and executing these elements will be daunting because we live in a world where vulnerability is rare. Good storytelling is a skill that’s only mastered by doing it relentlessly. Once you realize the immense benefits of practicing these three elements, only then will you start to see a shift in your business, content and the attentiveness of your audience (as well as your life!)

Look around you. Which blog posts captivate you? Why do you subscribe to certain blogs in the first place? Can you spot these elements in the author’s writing and delivery?

By practicing vulnerability, storytelling, and clearly communicating the “Why” factor, it can transform into a habit. A habit that will yield love and appreciation from your tribe, stories of your idea or product being put into practice, and a strong foundation that will reinforce your business and life.

Tomorrow, when you sit down to write, have these three keywords in front of you …

Vulnerability.

Storytelling.

Why.

Remind yourself of two things: You can either write content that is dry, safe, and has no personality, or you can write something daring and transparent — something that will shake the floor beneath your reader’s feet.

You have this power within you. All you need to do is use it.

About the Author: Paul Jun is a writer who focuses on abandoning self-defeat and living up to true potential. You can find more of his work on his blog, Motivated Mastery. He just released his second eBook, Reignite, which you can download at no charge.

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Comments

  1. I would like to add 3 more keywords (or phrases) – Teaching, Problem solving and Sharing own experience. When your posts honestly based on these three pillars, people bound to glue to it.

    • I wholeheartedly agree. From my experience, great writers (and bloggers) are great teachers; they solve problems and allow me to profit from their experience, failures, and successes. Thanks for the addition, Nandita.

    • Absolutely right Nandita…One more thing the more viral or hot topic is on your blog the most it will help you get spreaded…
      Be true to what you post and it will surely be loved by visitors…:)

  2. This is powerful and great stuff! I always believe that being vulnerable and really opening up makes others want to share, open, and feel comfortable doing. Its like this in any circle, no really want to go first and if they do they really don’t want to go real deep. But once that first person steps out and really opens up, wow it’s powerful to see how people really connect and open from that one person being vulnerable.

    Great articles! This is one to bookmark and come back to when your having problems thinking of ideas to write for (not that any of us would ever have that problem).

    • I just witnessed this in a classroom. Dead quiet, 35 students, first day of class. One student opened up, and voila!, it was like a chain reaction. The entire room was buzzing with conversation. It all started with one daring person to be vulnerable, to share something, to connect, to make someone laugh. Amazing.

  3. My blog is about writing as therapy and my own past of being a child victim of a cult. I am very open, honest, and vulnerable at times. I’m becoming a better storyteller daily. I’m still new at this, but traffic is increasing a little at http://www.danerickson.net.

  4. Thanks for the list Paul. #3 and the TED talk and book by Simon Sinek really had an impact on my way of thinking. The golden circle and his explanation of how it applies, specifically to Apple, was very eye-opening. It explains why Apple has raving fans and most other computer companies don’t. If we apply these concepts to our content, imagine the how viral our content could be and how many raving fans we could create, just by starting with why.

  5. “Good storytelling is a skill that’s only mastered by doing it relentlessly”
    And by being okay with screwing up. Chances are 90% if what you write isn’t going to change anyone’s world. But every time you sit down you learn a little bit more about yourself as a writer and your audience.

  6. Really like the post Paul. Especially the focus on vulnerability. It’s an aspect of compelling content that isn’t often discussed but can drastically up the authenticity of your writing.

    Thanks a lot for your post. Will be sharing via Twitter (@wiredimpact) later today.

  7. This hit home with me: Vunerability, Storytelling and Why. My next blog post will definitely have those in it. You are SO right, practice makes perfect. So true when it comes to writing. Thanks for an awesome post!!

    Deb :)

  8. Good morning!

    That was an excellent post. Thank you for breaking it down to three elements. The Big Why was a real refresher for me as I head into my marketing for the New Year.

    Respectfully,

    Chris

  9. 3 things for ANY kind of writing indeed. Cannot seem like a robot, need to write as if you are a human being.

  10. Loved this post! Also, I would definitely agree with earlier commenters that teaching could and should be added to this list.

  11. This post was fantastic. Thank you! It has inspired me to immediately implement and take action. It’s brilliantly simple. thank you again.

  12. So simple – in theory – and succinct. Love it. For anyone feeling overwhelmed by the principles, it helped me to step back and realize that this isn’t just about your life and your story and it doesn’t really have anything to do with what I would call sensationalizing. Applying these sounds principles can be as simple as sharing the ‘everyday parables’ that make you vulnerable, tell a good story and answer the why. It can be an object, an daily routine, a person or an emotion that you put into story form. The simple, daily experiences are what add up to really make the story of life significant, right? Use Evernote and start logging those ah-ha moments.

  13. Tell vulnerable stories. Make a practice of sharing your wound. I like it.

  14. Thanks Paul, for the kick in the pants! It’s the motivation I need for better content in 2013 – and the only way I’ll meet some of my goals.

  15. Thanks, Paul! Very much enjoyed the post! I just wrote those three pillars down on a sticky note and I am putting it on my desk. Any advice on improving my storytelling skills? Any tips, resources, or book recommendations are welcome! I am actually working with my fellow business partners to get better at storytelling by just starting to write on a blog we setup (www.storytellit.com if you’re interested). Like you said, practice, practice, practice and that’s what we are trying to do!

    I also loved your tip on just pretending like I am telling my best friend about my day, experience, or thought – I can see how that could definitely help me to write in the simple, straightforward, and vulnerable way that is most effective for blogging.

    Thanks again!

    • For me it comes down to practicing it daily and reading books beyond your comfort zone. Write about anything, really. It doesn’t have to be published. As long as you exercise the muscle it will grow. I’ve read mostly non-fiction, and yes although some of the writers that I read were excellent at story telling, I learned a lot of lessons by reading fiction and some of the classics like The Great Gatsby (a personal favorite, I wrote the book over twice.)
      Three quotes from Stephen Kings book On Writing:

      “Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience.”

      “The clear to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.”

      “Practice the art, always reminding yourself that your job is to say what you see, and then to get on with your story.”

  16. Being vulnerable and your “why”. Two hugely important elements of an effective entrepreneur. I like what Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it”. It is so true. Unless you have a big why, you better have a big bank account because you will be severely challenged to be a big success.

  17. Vulnerable is an amazing word. But more it is an amazing emotion because we may feel that we are vulnerable but others may miss seeing our vulnerability.
    I remember a time when a friend was sharing her story and the group we were in told her to shut up because her openness was making them uncomfortable.
    The nice thing with writing vulnerable blogs is that people can read it if they chose to. They want to know the why and accept your vulnerability as helpful.
    One thing when you do share, make sure you give some hope at the end or people may read and feel depressed.
    Thanks for sharing your story Paul

    • Yes, I love the word and I love what Brene Brown has done with it. It’s one of those words that made me dig deeper, and in turn, affect my life and writing in ways I couldn’t imagine.

  18. Excellent post Paul, good point thanks for sharing,

    I think vulnerability leads to credibility in the eye of the reader.

    This is what draws people in the most in my opinion, without trust what do you have?

  19. Sharing the tender spots is anything but easy, but definitely worth it if you want your posts to have long term popularity. As an example, the pieces I wrote about my struggle with mental illness are still often searched for, even though it’s been 4 years since I posted them.

    • I absolutely agree. I’ve noticed the more vulnerable I was in my writing the more the audience connected with it. Very frightening but so worth it.

  20. Excellent tips, Paul. Thanks. About to re-tweet Brian for this post.
    Vulnerability, Storytelling, and a clear Why. The Essentials.
    This article makes a great one-two punch with 7 Things Your Reader Needs To Hear You Say:
    http://tinyurl.com/7-things-reader-needs

  21. Excellent and cool idea, full of motivational juice.. Thank you very much Paul Jun.

  22. Well, based on the “Why?” talk, we should really reverse those, and put Why first, and maybe even vulnerability second, followed by storytelling. Remember, and good reporter doesn’t write a great story, a good reporter makes them great.

  23. I always say people follow people with passion and who polarize by using their opinions and story. It is what makes the “Why” memorable and also something people want to share. Stories, emotion AND why are the sign of a leader and just the why in my opinion is like a 6th grade teacher we all forget. Thanks Paul!

  24. Aha! I sort of knew why my best posts spread, but not in words concise enough to set a standard for the others. I make a career (two) of celebrating and encouraging the perfectly imperfect, so vulnerability is at the center. Thanks for helping me communicate that better in upcoming blog posts and articles. And thanks, too, for the archive of info I’ve been studying this past couple of weeks, putting together a marketing plan for my newish bookazine, 365 Being. Now, to quit reading for a bit and start implementing!

  25. Wow! Thanks for an excellent, straightforward post. I think sometimes writer types (possibly me!) can get caught up in trying too hard to write properly, editing out our own vulnerability. Love the Why, How, and What…keeps us on track. And I really appreciate the story you told about Seth Godin’s seminar. I think fear can be a good marker for vulnerability and pushing past it can result in authenticity and humility too.

    • I most definitely agree. It is also something that many won’t embrace simply because fear unmans them. Writing and analyzing at the same time (for me) is dangerous. I’ve been practicing the act of writing what I need to say and then returning to it later.

  26. Melissa Hicks :

    Paul,

    I so enjoyed this post. At a glance it’s simple, succinct and engaging – but it’s also packed with loads of great content. I spent the first hour of my morning combing through your post, click each and every link, reading other posts, watching the video and taking notes. I’ve been criticized from time to time for my vulnerability in storytelling, but I’ve found that the number of people I connect with in doing so far outweighs cries from the naysayers.

    Thank you for sharing such a powerful message. Great way to start the day!

  27. all thress of these are great reminders! Sometimes I forget about the Why some times and and get caught on on producing content just to produce but I can see where staying focused on this is such a benefit. I have been struggling a little about my direction but I thin everyonce in a while I need to read the into post on my blog to reminde me of my course and the Why…maybe I should hang it up…?

  28. Connor Watkins :

    Thanks for sharing. The more open you are to your audience, in writing and conversations, the more captivated your audience will be by what you say. Best rule of life to follow!

  29. I would add one more element that comes from evolutionary understanding of our race. We have evolved to avoid death–to survive. And as a result we are drawn into any story about death or surviving near death. It’s why CSI-type programs and thrillers are so popular on our television sets.

  30. Paul,
    It’s a shame I came across this so late…but I guess better late than never. I really admire what you have to share, your advice on vulnerability and storytelling. I know you’ve learned these techniques from others, but you’ve put it into good practice. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    Ken

  31. Thanks Paul, for the kick in the pants! It’s the motivation I need for better content in 2013 – and the only way I’ll meet some of my goals.

  32. Be a vulnerable storyteller. Strangely enough, this motivated me to go to a very painful place for an upcoming writing contest I’m entering! I’m fired up. Thank you!

    But yes, I will also use these tips in my freelance writing and blogging as well :)

  33. This was beautifully written, my friend.

    Among all the comments these days about how “reading is dead”, it makes me wonder what the future of writing will be as the internet becomes the primary device by which all culture is consumed. Honestly, I don’t think we have anything to be scared of, and this post really made me feel confident about that. I think that it is wonderful to be reminded that the fundamentals really haven’t changed at all, and probably never will.

  34. Paul, I, as others, was blown away by this post. It does seem to translate to other parts of life as well as writing. Certainly it gets to the idea that if you are expressing those things, you are authentic and human. And I agree that it is terrific teaching advice.

  35. Helpful post at a time when I’m struggling to create meaningful content. Thanks for sharing.

  36. I’m not sure I can count the ways in which I love this post. I think writers shy away from their vulnerability all too often. I know I do. But I find that my posts about fear, struggle, etc… are the ones that get the most response. They resonate.

    Writing, like life, is about being authentic. People respond to authenticity, even if it isn’t pretty or glamorous.

  37. Hey Paul,

    this is a great post – particularly because I like the number 3 (for too many reasons to go into here) – let’s just say 3 things to remember about… is something you’re more likely to remember – and I agree with all 3 of them (of course).

    So I’m curious now, what’s your Why? Paul?

    take care & best wishes,
    Alan