I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day on the way into work. The podcast, “Longform,” is a weekly installment where different nonfiction writers are interviewed about how they got their start, what their writing practices are, and how they tell their stories. This particular morning, the guest spoke about his challenge of figuring out how to fit a larger story into a small space. On the surface level, this isn’t an extraordinary statement–I think we’ve all had plenty of experiences that bring truth to this idea–but when you consider who was being interviewed, the idea takes on a whole new meaning. Jon Favreau, President Barack Obama’s former speechwriter, was the guest of the week (click here for the full episode, it’s wonderful). Favreau served as Obama’s speech writer from 2005 to 2013. He was with Obama when he was a senator and wrote for him during his first presidential campaign as well as his second, and eventually went on to serve as a White House staff member as the Director of Speechwriting. And even though Favreau wrote for the most powerful person in the country, he still encountered challenges in simplifying a story into something that was both concise and engaging.
While on the podcast, Favs (as President Obama affectionately calls him) speaks about his start as a writer and about the litany of experiences he had while working for the president. Out of all of the wisdom he shared during the episode, one of the items that stuck with me most was Favreau’s lamentation on the challenge of sharing his message, shaping it into a story, and doing so in a way that forces people to continue to pay attention. After commenting on the increasingly shrinking attention spans of the public, he defended the enduring importance of the narrative. He begged the question: “how do you tell a story that is as succinct and simple as possible, and [still] fit everything into it?” When I heard this, I just laughed to myself in my car and shook my head. Favreau struggles to capture and maintain the public’s attention in a speech coming from the President of the United States. The President. Of the United States. I’m trying to get people’s attention simply by discovering the right subject line or the best opening sentence to lead the receiver to keep reading. If the Favreau-Obama duo can’t even get their entire audience’s attention, how am I supposed to?
The answer of course, is that there is no solution to getting everyone’s attention. One hundred percent almost never happens, so your next question becomes: what is realistic? After setting a realistic expectation for audience size, you should also set a realistic goal to increase that audience size. Just because you can’t get everyone to listen doesn’t mean that you can’t be working towards getting more heads to turn. And in order to do that, you have to try new tactics, which means at some points, you have to fail.
I am challenged with fitting a story into one of the tightest and most brutal places on the internet: your inbox. Each of our clients has an incredible story to tell because they’re all offering services that can genuinely assist other companies. Last week, I talked about making the audience the hero of the story. Obviously, in order to do so, you have to tell a story. But the question is, how do you do that in the space of an email? Or even worse, in the space of a subject line? I need to make sure I string together the right words to create a compelling story within a tight space. Each idea needs to build on the one the came before it, and each sentence needs to have a specific purpose.
For me, Favreau’s question becomes a new challenge, and a new opportunity for both failure and success: how do I get across my narrative through an email that is only a few paragraphs long? Or, how do I entice people to engage with that story through a subject line? With email campaigns, you get one chance to get someone’s attention–only one. Think about your email inbox for a second. What gets you to open emails? I imagine it is one of two things: either the sender of the email itself or the subject line of the email. So as a Content Strategist, it is part of my job to make sure our open rates for emails stay where they need to be–to strategize content and subject lines so those open rates are improving.
Favs taught me that no matter who you are, no matter what your message, there are just some people that aren’t going to pay attention. And the fact that they are not listening is not your failure; refraining from convincing a portion of those people to start paying attention is your failure. When your aim is to widen your lens, rather than to open it completely, it becomes achievable, and your efforts are better spent. And in order to widen that lens, you must tell the most compelling story you can in the amount of space you are given.