Building Your Audience Isn’t Magic

San Fransisco, August 14th, 1921 —
A young Hungarian man had just rolled into town and was eager to let everyone know he had arrived. He needed to make friends with the press and he had an idea of how to make this happen.

Later that day, he walked into a building, climbed seven flights of stairs, put on a straightjacket, and promptly threw himself out of a window.

A little dramatic, yes, but the man wanted press. So he didn’t jump out of just any window, and he didn’t jump out of just any building — he jumped out of the window of the newspaper offices.

The next day, thanks to every journalist reporting their first-hand account, every person in San Fransisco knew the man’s name. Later that night, the man performed more magic tricks — this time to a sold-out crowd.

Fast-forward a hundred years and the name Harry Houdini is still the first association people make when they hear the word “magician” — for good reason; few people have done it better.

But don’t let Houdini fool you — as good as he was at magic, he was even better at selling newspapers.

Houdini was a master of deception. However, he was also a master at building an audience and driving sales. While most entertainers sat on the corner and performed tricks for every Tom, Dick and Sally in each new town they visited, hoping “word of mouth” would spread, Houdini took the time to identify the mouths that could speed up the process.

When others went general, Houdini got specific, and by doing so, ironically, his influence grew.

However, identifying his target audience was not the only thing Houdini took the time to do before throwing himself out the window. He also mapped out ways in which he could make their lives easier.

If you want to sell your products or services, it becomes much easier if you target the people who are already looking for them. Houdini understood this. As a result, he gave the press the one thing any journalist worth their stones always wants — a story.

Identifying your desired audience, then making their lives easier, put these things together and you have Houdini’s magic potion for growing his audience.

The good news is you can pull off the same trick.

Most people today want to make a dent in this world and have their work make a difference — it happens by identifying the ideal someone. Most influencers agree with this — “find your 1000 true fans,” in the words of Kevin Kelly.

The beauty of the world we live in today is that we don’t have to jump out of any windows to find our audience. They are a click away and, to quote Mr. Kelly again, “As far as I can tell there is nothing — no product, no idea, no desire — without a fan base on the internet.”

That means that the key to unlocking your influence is to stake your small piece of land and plant your flag. Then when your audience comes grazing, do whatever you can to make sure they leave well-fed.

In short, if you want to influence people, your job is to leave each person better than you found them. This is how you win attention. This is how you gain trust. This is how you move people towards the change you seek to make.

And this becomes much easier if you identify someone, instead of trying to please everyone.

The odds are high that you are good at what you do, but not so good you can’t be ignored. Hell, Houdini was that good, yet with each new city he visited, he still lugged a straightjacket up seven flights of stairs and hung himself out of a window.

He did this because he knew it would work. Because that August day, in 1921 San Fransisco, was the not the first time he had done it. In 1915, he did it for the first time in in Kansas City, and over the next decade, he did it again and again as he made his way across America.

Houdini was the world’s greatest magician. Houdini was also the world’s greatest newspaper salesman. But this was because Houdini was the world’s greatest tinkerer. For years he struggled to make a name for himself. He did card tricks on the street. He swallowed needles in front of people who passed him by. In each of these attempts he failed to get his name to spread.

What made Houdini, “Houdini,” was he never considered himself a failure; he adopted the mindset of a “tinkerer” — he knew with each failure, he would get closer to success.

Most people want their work to been seen by the masses. However, most people aren’t willing to do the work. They aren’t patient enough to work out who they are best positioned to serve and they aren’t determined and consistent enough to uncover how their best offering can help move the right people in the direction they want them to go.

If that is you, you have two options:

  1. You can be like most people, and play it safe by aiming for everyone, hoping you hit someone.
  2. You can be unlike most people and make a stand by putting your voice in front of the people who are waiting to hear your words.

I suggest not being like most people. Instead, I recommend following Houdini and take the time to identify your audience. Then taking it one step further by making their lives better for knowing you.

Seth Godin got it dead right — “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic.”

Remember: magic always has a secret and, more times than not, it looks a lot like hard work.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.
— Michael

If You Want to Be a Confident Creator, Learn to Walk Away

The most important lesson I’ve learned about creativity didn’t come from something I read, but rather something I saw.

I was watching a profile on Christoph Niemann (the artist with the most covers gracing The New Yorker) when suddenly his office clock struck six and without hesitation, he stopped what he was doing, grabbed his jacket — and within seconds was breathing in the cold Berlin air.

Just like that, the clock made a ding and he stopped working. I was so surprised by his action I nearly woke up my newborn son to ask him if he’d seen it also.

“Why did he do that?

“Wasn’t clock watching only for people who hated their jobs?”

“Wasn’t he in his flow?”

“What if he couldn’t find his rhythm tomorrow?

This silent move made me question everything I’ve been taught about growing my creative muscle — the importance of pushing through and fighting the resistance.

However, Christoph’s discipline got me thinking about how important it also is to have the confidence to say to yourself every day when the clock makes noise — “Today I’ve done enough.”

Is what you are working on today going to be better or worse tomorrow?

Having the courage to know the answer to this question is tomorrow is the silent confidence that separates the true creatives from those who constantly doubt their abilities.

Do you want to know what spurs my best ideas? My wife. My kids. My friends. Good conversation. Green grass. Tall trees. A run. A book. Life.

Yet every evening when my energy is running down, and what I am working on will be better tomorrow — my wife still has to call my name three times before I finally sit down to eat a cold dinner that was once warm.

Christoph’s actions taught me that the best creatives don’t only ask themselves — “What have I learned that’s going to make this perfect?”

They also ask themselves, “What have I not learned yet?”

Then they allow life to slowly reveal to them the answers.

Over the last year, I’ve pushed through to find what I was looking for. I wrote in order to find what I was trying to say. And I’m glad that I did — constant creating has led to some of my best creations.

However, what I was lacking, and what I think separates the best from the rest, was a balance.

I’ve shouted from the rooftops the words made famous by Jocko Willink — “Discipline equals freedom.” But I’ve failed to realize that developing the discipline to stop is just as important as finding the motivation to start.

Rarely do I have the confidence to trust myself enough to say, “Today I have done enough and tomorrow I’ll finish what I’m working on — and it’ll be better for it.”

The more I study the creative process, the more I realize a perfect one doesn’t exist. There are times when I should indeed push through. When my body and mind are working in sync and I can tell I’m one keystroke away from great.

However, there are also times when life is the key to unearthing the next word. If I’m ever going to be a confident creator I need to trust this process. I need to give in when my body and mind say enough. I need to cultivate the confidence to understand that the experiences of tomorrow are the key to making my work better today.

God knows there will be days when I tell my wife, “Just one more minute.” But Christoph taught me the value and necessity of sometimes not waiting for my name to be called.

Knowing when to stop is just as important as motivating yourself to begin.

This isn’t easy — but confidence never comes cheap.

Thank you for reading.
My very best to you and yours.

The Joy of Creating for an Audience of None

I walked through our front door and found my 5-year-old quietly drawing at our kitchen table. 

I wanted to join him. 

But since he was biting his tongue clearly lost in concentration — and remembering how much I hate it when people bother me when I’m in the “biting-tongue” zone — I opted for silence. 

Every few minutes though, curious as to what he was so obsessed with, I walked past him to sneak a peak. 

“Is that a yellow cow?” I thought to myself only seeing partial snippets. “Or maybe it’s an overweight cheetah?”

When the tongue-biting was finally done, I went over to him and said, “That’s super cool, what is it?”

The next words that came out of his mouth leveled me. 

With the exception of the time he scored a goal on me and then proceeded to moon me, I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder to be his dad. 

“I’ve never seen a giraffe without a neck before,” he said, “and I wanted to see one — so I drew one.”

Everywhere we turn we’re bombarded with advice to write for our readers. 

To put our audience first.
To imagine just one person.
To give them what they want. 

Maybe it’s because I’m biased— but aren’t my kid’s words a helluva lot more inspirational and even more fun?

Quietly scratching your own itch.
Quietly defining your own lines. 
Quietly making the stuff you want to see in the world. 

We live in a beautiful time where we can make a living creating online. But my kid’s words serve as a powerful reminder of the value of making stuff for an audience of none.

To let it rip. 
To make first and breathe later.
To be completely free.

Looking back, the one thing that all my favorite creations have in common is I treated my curiosity as my only responsibility. 

I couldn’t not write them.
No audience in mind.
Just me. 

My feelings.
My thoughts.
My stories.

I got so obsessed with the self-expression I bit my tongue like I didn’t need it later for dinner — and didn’t stop chomping on it until it was done.

No polish.
Zero packaging.

glass of water
A giraffe without a neck.

The beauty of creating stuff for a living is we get to follow our nose until we don’t have a nose left to follow. 

Steal a line from my kid and chase your nose wherever it goes. 

Allow yourself to get lost and don’t stop creating until you’re found. 

Curiosity is a word that was meant to be followed.

Like my mom said, “It keeps us interested. It makes us interesting. No matter our age, it keeps us young.

Thank you for reading.
Make the art you want to see in the world.
Everyone else’s is already taken. 
 — Michael

The Future Belongs to Storytellers - Here Are 9 Ways for Your Stories to Beat the Machines

“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.” 

I don’t accept the entire gospel of Steve Jobs. But when it comes to the words above, I couldn’t agree more. Storytellers were viewed as community leaders in the past as they sat around the fire entertaining and educating their people about the worries and wonders of the world.

And the same holds true today. 

If you can learn how to tell your story in a way that makes people want to follow your flag — or better yet, carry it with you — there’s little you can’t do.

Stories are the great human connector. There is no stronger bridge. Memorable storytellers come in all shapes and sizes. But when you clear and smoke and noise, the best ones do one thing really well — they’ve mastered the sticky mix of bravery and vulnerability. 

If you can let people see you’re the type of person who faces challenges and is strong enough to realize you can’t do it alone, it’s only a matter of time before your own stories begin to fly.

Growing up as a shy kid with a severe stutter, I’ve witnessed first-hand how transformational learning to tell personal stories can be. At first, I was scared to write them and even more petrified to share them. But they not only helped me find my people, after only a few years of honing the skill, I now teach storytelling at universities and coach higher-ups at places known for storytelling like IDEO and Apple.

If you’re interested in writing stories that create human connections, here are nine of the dozens of tips and tricks I’ve picked up since choosing a life of stories.

When I began writing, I was eager to share my big stories — the ones that defined my life. 

But I quickly realized I only had so many of them to tell and my “micro-stories” — the ones that defined my daily human experience — oftentimes created a stronger connection with readers as they found them more relatable.

Anytime you come across something interesting that connects with you on a personal level or makes you go “hmmm” throughout the day, it’s your job to write it down. 

  • It could be a realization you had while watching your kids play
  • Or a quirky thing your partner does. 
  • Or something a friend or family member did or said that made you feel an emotion that wasn’t there earlier or allows you to see the world from a different angle.

You can even form the daily habit of jotting down one childhood memory or simply write one thing you learned each day so when you sit down to write you have a few starting points to play with. 

Much like a Margherita pizza, this piece of advice is a classic for a reason, it works. 

The quality of your stories is a direct reflection of the quality of your collection. 

When I began writing, a friend recommended above each draft I placed the words — “What do I want people to do after reading this story?”

Though valuable in its own right, lasting connections didn’t begin to form until I mixed the question up and asked myself — “What do I want people to feel when reading this story?”

Human beings are emotional creatures. We love to have our feelings stoked and our heartstrings tugged. 

Before writing your first word, zero in on the emotions you are looking to elicit from readers and take a moment to relive the experience so you too are fully emersed in this emotional state.

While editing his articles, my friend Niklas Göke reads his draft from the perspective of “Am I hitting the emotions I’m looking to hit?” 

It’s not a coincidence that he’s one of the most loved writers around.

My friend Conor Neill said something that made a lot of sense — “Human beings don’t resist change, they resist being changed. Your job as a storyteller is to create the space for change to take place.” 

You will never accomplish this if you lead with your ego. 

People don’t care about how cool you are. In fact, the moments that connect the most are the very times you allow yourself to be uncool.

As the world becomes louder and every Tom, Dick, and Sandra runs online to make their fortune, the honest ones will be the very people who make the biggest long-term impact.

Drop your mask. 

Be yourself.

Do the opposite of what more and more people are doing on Linkedin.

The world’s most valuable currency will always be honesty.

Movie directors can get away with starting slowly and building up to a certain extent as people have committed for 90 minutes. Online, however, people aren’t nearly as tolerable as the moment you begin to bore them is the very moment they’ve clicked on the next shiny title.

The most effective way to combat this is by pulling people immediately into your world. Lead with the action and then backtrack to fill in only the relevant details before moving the storyline along. 

It’s hard to walk away from these sentences. You want to know what the phone call was about and why my wife was crying.

If people love anything, it’s being pulled out of their everyday lives and transported into a new world. 

Give people what they want.

Throw them into the action. 

Once you’ve gained your audience’s attention, it’s time to gain their trust. 

In the beginning of the film Rocky, Sylvester Stallone — a big and burly man — is found running through the streets of Philadelphia when suddenly, he stops to pick up a stray cat. 

It’s hard not to like a big and burly man who takes the time to care for a kitten as much like the mix of bravery and vulnerability, strong and sensitive sticks.

Rather than opting for the route of being super-human, show something in your introduction that allows people to see you as simply human. 

Being scared, nervous, or downright terrified is always a solid option. After all, if most humans share any two qualities they are fear and doubt. 

But again, it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Show people a weakness. Ask for help. Hold the door for someone. Tell someone you love them. Pick up a kitten.

To connect with other humans, you have to show your humanity.

Tension in your story is key. It keeps people on the edge of their seats. Keeping an eye on your tempo and mixing up your sentence lengths to hit a solid rhythm is also valuable.

I tend to do a lot of the “jab, jab, jab, punch” rhythms of a handful of short descriptive sentences and then end with a longer action sentence (or vice-versa) or quick little points before driving home the main point like in the example below from one of my favorite “micro-stories.”

Regrets, when you’re still young, aren’t regrets — they’re reminders.

Reminders we can still make the time.
Reminders the choice is ours.
Reminders it’s not too late to change.

In a world fuelled by deadlines, to-do lists, and never-ending goals to crush, it’s surprisingly easy to forget what the real goal is.

One other quirky thing I’ve been doing since day one (probably due to beginning to write while raising two young kids) is looking to get a few sentences to rhyme.

It may sound childish but there’s a reason Dr. Suess sells and rap lyrics are so easy to remember. All good art has a memorable rhythm to it. Reading, looking at, or listening to something that reads, looks, or sounds the same is kryptonite for your audience.

Play with your sentences.

People want to be moved.

It’s hard to do that if your writing is monotonous.

My friend Larry Cornett, Ph.D. shared a wonderful piece of advice. 

In conversation, if you are speaking for more than 40 seconds and the person on the receiving end of your words doesn’t show some signs of life — eg: a head nod, smile, “I’m following,” or “That’s interesting!” — the odds are high you’ve lost their attention and you’re being long-winded.

In storytelling, the same rule doesn’t exactly apply, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind. It serves as a reminder that even though gaining people’s attention is vital, it loses serious value if you don’t learn how to keep it. 

After kicking off your story with a hook that pulls people into your world, scan your stories to make sure your sentences that elicit some kind of emotional, mental, or even physical response from readers are nicely spread out. For a 1,000 words story, every 150–200 words is a good marker to start. This could come in the form of a “mini-cliffhanger” that raises the stakes and adds to the tension. Or it could come in a change in tempo, the form of weaving in some dialog if your story isn’t dialog-heavy already, or an interesting or humorous thought. 

If you can get away with high speed from start to finish, go for it. But remember people love roller coasters and like to have their emotions go up and down as they are taken through your story.

One way I gauge this is by asking my wife to read my stories to herself before she reads them out loud while I watch her body language. 

Her slight smile or widening eyes in certain parts (or lack thereof) tells me everything I need to know about how engaged she is.

The simplest definition of a story is someone is faced with a challenge and they are willing to risk everything — even their life — to overcome it.

The thing is, though, we rarely — if ever — do this alone. 

Frodo had Sam.

Luke had Yoda.

Who helped you in your journey?

This can come in the form of someone passing on a piece of advice, remembering how someone else navigated a similar situation, or someone physically doing something that made your journey easier.

No matter how much we like to think we accomplish our goals on our own, we rarely do. In your stories, give credit where credit is due. It shows your humility. It’s also a solid way to tie in your vulnerability as you’re someone who has the stones to ask or accept help. 

If I’ve learned anything in life as someone who falls on the shy line, it’s that those who shine the spotlight on others still catch some rays themselves.

Whenever you can, paint the people who helped you as the hero in your own “Hero’s Journey.”

“What’s the most important part of a story?” If you ask a hundred people this question a high majority will say the introduction. To an extent, I agree. After all, if you can’t get people through your door, it’s hard to ensure they leave well-fed. 

But as your writing progresses, a solid argument can be made your conclusion is the most valuable territory as most people define an experience by their last interaction with said experience. 

Plus, the last thing you want to do is take people for a ride and make them feel like you’re kicking them out of your Jetta when your time together is coming to an end.

When writing articles, aiming for the head and ending with an interesting thought can work. With stories though, you’re better served shooting for the heart.

Imagine the face of your target reader when they finish your story. What do you want to see? Empowerment in their eyes? Or maybe hope? Or possibly a single tear gently running down their left cheek?

Take advantage of this seriously valuable real estate. 

This is your last chance to open the door for change to take place.

We all have stories to share. The world is waiting to learn about yours. If you feel like you haven’t done anything of value in your life, even better. 

The best stories always entail struggle and if you’ve failed a bunch or have lived most of your life in a state of fear, embarrassment, or shame, you’re sitting on a potential gold mine. 

If a guy who grew up with a severe stutter can now make a living teaching and giving talks about how to write and tell stories, imagine how far your own stories can take you.

Thank you for reading.
Share your stories.
It’s selfish not to.
— Michael