The “What Not to Wear” Guide to Breakthrough Blogging

What Not to Wear

What in the world does the cheeky cable fashion show What Not to Wear have to do with effective blogging?

Have I finally pushed this analogy thing too far?

Nope… this one is easy. But you’re going to have to read the rest to see for yourself.

OK, let’s proceed. But just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start with a quick summary of what What Not to Wear is all about.

Depending on where you live, What Not to Wear is either a fashion show on The Learning Channel featuring Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, or a fashion show on the BBC starring Lisa Butcher and Mica Paris. The show, which originated in the UK, is an ambush-style reality program where fashion victims are critiqued on their current clothing choices, and then (often brutally) coached on buying an entire new wardrobe, all for the delight of the viewing audience.

Why Wrong Beats Right

Truth is, the approach taken by What Not to Wear actually helps both its victims and the audience make smarter fashion choices. And by adopting the reason the show is an effective educational program into your own blogging, you’ll be able to truly get through to your readers, which is a benefit to everyone involved.

The key is to focus on mistakes, or what not to do, instead of focusing only on what to do. So, if you’re writing a “how to” post that will do well in social media, your examples should focus on what not to do in order to best illustrate the right thing to do.

Don’t believe me? Well, there’s actual psychological research that backs this up.

Fighting Fire With Mistakes

Wendy Joung performed behavioral training research on firefighters in 2006, and the results are published in Applied Psychology. She and her colleagues found that firefighters trained with case studies that focused on others who had made poor decisions and suffered adverse consequences ultimately showed better judgment and better adaptive thinking than a control group provided with case studies that focused on positive results.

Bottom line—mistakes teach better than successes. You might already know this from your own life.

Increase Attention, Engagement and Retention

Training programs and content marketing face the same natural enemies—lack of attention, poor engagement, and unmemorable approaches. Focusing on mistakes naturally attracts attention, increases engagement, and produces lessons that are vividly memorable… it’s just the way we’re wired.

This is much of what you’re aiming for with blogging. Because no matter your ultimate goals, a lack of attention, engagement or retention will not allow you to get there.

So, to create breakthrough blog posts, you should create vivid illustrations with the mistakes others have made, or simply mistakes in general. You’ll find that you defeat the demons that a lack of attention, poor engagement, and bad retention represent.

Still not convinced?

Here are the two most popular posts in Copyblogger history:

Should you make this strategy the focus of every post? No, and I certainly don’t. But keep in mind that for any type of “how to” or instructional content, adding in examples of “what not to do” will make you a more effective communicator.

About the Author: Brian Clark is the founding editor of Copyblogger, and co-founder of Scribe. Get more from Brian on Twitter.

Print Friendly

What do you want to learn?

Click to get a free course and resources about:

Reader Comments (51)

  1. says

    This was a great analogy.

    In a lot of my “how to” articles I always point out the dos and don’ts and the positives and negatives. It really does help steer people in the right direction. I did it with my most recent article.


  2. says

    Brian – Completely agree that exploring mistakes made by other is a great tool for learning.

    Also, from a headline standpoint, people tend to be more strongly drawn in by negative/trainwrecks than positive claims. Another positive psych dude, Jonathan Haidt describes how, much as we deny it, many people, even those who are outwardly kind, harbor a somewhat innate pathology that makes us revel in another’s demise…even if secretly.

    So, next time anyone wonders why National Enquirer outsells everything else on the planet…

  3. says

    Kind of explains how A Series of Unfortunate Events IS a great book series title, or blog series …hm…if Lemony Snicket blogged…or painted….love the analogy…muse worthy.

  4. says

    When you’re writing a how to post it should be automatic for you to tell people what not to do instead of always telling people what to do. What many people like to see in social media and just visitors to your blog is what not to do it and tell them what the reasons are that they shouldn’t do it. Then you should go into what they should do instead of the things they shouldn’t do.

  5. says

    I used to be horrified at my otherwise-intelligent friend’s obsession with The Jerry Springer Show. I told her there were better ways to kill brain cells. She disagreed and said that seeing other people more screwed up than she was gave her a mental boost.

    Even I watch WNTW and think, “Look at that poor schlub. Thank goodness it’s not me.”

  6. says

    A genuinely good approach. “Knowing what not to do” works because to an extent we know the results/outcomes and we want to avoid those results/outcomes. It is only through the outcome that you can realise what not to do and the results are solid, three-dimensional in front of you. On the other hand it also inculcates a feeling of challenge and opposition. For instance I wouldn’t like someone telling me what not to wear as long as my clothes are decent, they are covering all the parts they are supposed to be covering, and they are not causing a nuisance. But yes, I would follow easily the advise based on “knowing what not to do” vis-a-vis my business.

  7. says

    Nice post Brian. My favourite thing of WNTW and its ilk is the humiliation factor. I love to see my fellow human beings squirm, for the purposes of their personal development (and, of course, my entertainment). Maybe you could humiliate a few willing bloggers for a future post? Rip apart their blogs, and show us what they’re doing wrong.

    I’m not volunteering by the way…

  8. says

    I hate that show. Is “hate” not a strong enough term?

    I do understand the concept of pointing out what not to do (wear), but this show is horrible. I’m going to block it right now.

  9. says

    I wonder why negative examples and related consequences do better? Perhaps because they tie into the adult learner’s desire to relate new concepts to things that they know from their own experiences.

    Is it easier to claim a causal relationship with negative results? Negative: He didn’t wear his seatbelt, so he was thrown from the car. Positive: He did wear his seatbelt, and survived the wreck. We can’t be sure if the seatbelt saved him or not(?)

  10. says

    great reminder for those of us who may not have been using this writing technique.

    folks tend to react more from wanting to avoid a pain than they do from wanting to achieve a success.

    it’s easy to dismiss “what you should do” because “what i have been doing has been getting me by.”

    however, who wants to put themselves (through action or inaction) in a painful or uncomfortable situation?

  11. says

    As a critic, I can tell you that it’s a lot easier to tell people what they’ve done wrong rather than what they could have done right. The world of wrongness, after all, is so much more defined than the world of rightness. But I do always try to point out what could have been done, or what I’d like to see in the future if I can.

    That being said: The most popular article we’ve posted thus far is titled “Will It Poop Freeze?” Hmm.

  12. says

    Interesting- I recently wrote a post about a website that was using the wrong photos for their audience (audience of mainly women, but using sexy pix of women to sell weight loss). It’s generated the most comments and interest out of all my posts on that blog.

    I’d just assumed it was because I included one of the pix! 😀

  13. JuleS says

    Well, as the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” (or wiser or smarter or better).

    The reasoning behind why “what not to do” seems to be more successful in getting people’s attention gets back to the theory (well-proven) that honing in on the fear factor grabs attention. That is, when you appeal to the fears of the average consumer, you’re more likely to get response than making a promise of wonderful things to come. We’ve learned that people respond to fear more than anything else, even if it’s subtle.

  14. says

    That was a very good and interesting article. I like the way you presented and everything you said makes perfect sense.

  15. says

    Thanks BC.

    I have a client who needed this very post.

    So nice of you to do a little lite reading ( my mind ) and then deliver the goods, er … a great post.

    Do you mind if I swipe this and trend some of my next info products this direction ? I though you wouldn’t mind 😉

  16. says

    Great post!

    As soon as I read this article I had a flurry of of ideas for new blog posts.

    It also reminded me of Frank Kern’s email results where a “bad news” subject line consistently outpulled any others.

    He called it the “Rubber Neck” effect.

    At the end of the day I guess it’s no surprise that this type of content naturally pulls people in.

  17. says

    Has this concept always been around? Seems to me that the idea of what not to do started to really explode about the time of “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” came out. Could be catchy for a series of blog posts — “How to Lose Your Readers in 10 Days” kind of thing.

    I’ll admit I’m a sucker for “anti” how-to’s. Not only does it help you learn from the mistakes of others (as you point out), but it can subtly underline some of the mistakes you are making without drawing attention to you…


  18. says

    This is a good reminder for me. Corporate marketing & communications types are generally fans of keeping everything cloyingly positive (this is generally called “taking the high road” although it rarely, in fact, actually involves taking the high road). Sometimes a good train wreck is just what’s needed to grab more engagement and attention.

  19. says

    Awesome analogy! Honestly I do notice people have an easier time with seeing what NOT to do instead of seeing what they must do as it can leave them feeling overwhelmed. This is quality. Thank you!

  20. says

    Thinking about this, I think “avoid these mistakes” is good for attention, but “do this” is good for spurring action. It’s not an either/or, both are useful and have their place.

    You’ll notice that Copyblogger focuses mostly on what you *can* do to take action, but the occasional “don’t make this mistake” grabs attention and interest.

  21. says

    Remember that we are supposed to learn from our mistakes so it makes sense to go that route when you are trying to teach something or show tips. It is sort of ingrained in us to learn that way. When we were children we learned mostly from “no-noes” so it makes sense to continue to learn that way.

  22. says

    Well, so much for accentuate the positive. You are saying we should focus on the negative. Most people do learn from negatives, like a horrible car crash.

  23. says

    Awesome analogy! Honestly I do notice people have an easier time with seeing what NOT to do instead of seeing what they must do as it can leave them feeling overwhelmed. This is quality. Thank you!

  24. says

    I agree 100%! So did my driver ed teacher in high school, actually. He had us cut out articles about motor vehicle accidents from the paper and write up summaries of what *not* to do when driving. The one I’ll never forget? The 80+ year old couple who stopped dead on an interstate to read a sign. Yep, what *not* to do.

  25. says

    I have a tendency to use “Do This Posts” I like the idea of moving into the future.

    It looks as if writing the things you shouldn’t do gives the benefits of doing the things you should be doing.

    This is good idea – You have given excellent proof. Off to write up some things you shouldn’t do.

  26. says

    This is a great post and makes terrific sense. And yet… it flies in the face of one of my favorite theories, Appreciative Inquiry, which focuses on strengths and potential solutions rather than problems in which people can get stuck. Which isn’t cloyingly positive, just a way to get people to shift perspective. And yet, this works. Perhaps it is the exception that proves the rule? Or I just don’t know enough yet? Hmmm…

  27. says

    Yet another great post with advice that is instantly usable.

    One thing I wonder about is, though: How do you determine the “most popular posts”?

  28. says

    For sure! Not only will showing wrong examples highlight the things to avoid, but it leaves the way open for people to decide how best to do it right.

    Showing a person how to prepare an iced banana cake by demonstrating a specific series of exact steps and not allowing for variation can stifle creativity. By highlighting a handful of things to watch out for and then leaving a person to learn and explore without a rigid framework of exacting steps may well lead to the discovery of another master chef.

    Each of us most likely got to where we are by trial and error – and perseverance – so making public the errors that helped us refine our skills can be a valuable element in our testimonies. It can be something that helps make us more human to our readers rather than appear as just another voice among the thousands of so-called experts who claim to have figured it all out.

    Cheers, Michael.

Comments are open for seven days. This article's comments are now closed.