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The First Commandment of Writing

It's weird how quickly things can become normalized. For instance, the thought of broadcasting your thoughts in realtime on your local radio station, or putting an essay in the newspaper every single week would have been deeply odd just a few decades ago, but now we do the modern equivalent -- Tweeting and blogging -- like it ain't no thang.

Which of course means a whole cottage industry has grown up around telling you all kinds of hacks and algorithms and complicated stuff for making people pay attention to your writing. But what so many of these systems miss out on is what I consider to be the first and by far most important commandment for writing:

You’re spam until you prove otherwise.

It’s not because people are jerks or because you’re not worth reading. It’s because or the way our brains are wired. 

Ready for me to lay some science on you?

(The only acceptable response.)

So researchers have found that most of the people you encounter in your life are automatically categorized as set dressing. And I mean this literally — you don’t really conceive of them as full on, 3D, in living color humans.

Not because you’re not a good, decent person. But because of the way that human brains evolved. See, upper level primates, humans included, are wired to interact with each other in small groups. 

In fact, you can tell about the size of the group that the primates can do well in by their brain size. This is called Dunbar's number*. For humans, this number is about 150, meaning that we really only think of about 150 other people in our lives as having desires and feelings and favorite colors and childhood memories of that one time that the playground bully pushed them off of the balance beam. Everyone else is background.

Pretty much everyone you encounter in life, according to your brain.

When you combine this natural tendency to relegate other people to the "red shirt" category of our lives with the oversaturation of all NEW all GREAT all SINGING AND DANCING ZOMG content that’s constantly coming our way, it’s no wonder that most people are primed to tune you out.

What’s the fix?

Naturally, this has a lot of marketers and business owners shitting bricks. After all, the landscape of communication has completely changed in the past 15ish years or so, and now there’s pretty much no way to guarantee that people will even see your message, much less actually give a damn about it.

A lot of people try to overcome this with hacks, buzz phrases, and algorithms, but as I’ve said before, this isn’t sustainable, and you can’t hack a relationship.

What you can do though is use another interesting brain twist to get under people’s skin: the identity model of decision making. Ready for another study?

Consequences vs identity

So this professor from Stanford, James March, has found that people make choices relying on two models: the consequences model or the identity model. 

The first one is what happens when you weigh the pros and cons. It's when you ask,

"If I do this, and then that happens, is that what I want?

The second one is what happens when you ask

"What does the kind of person that I am do when confronted with this situation?" 

For instance, I don't choose to not litter because I could get a fine -- I don't litter because that's not the kind of person I am. See how it works?

This phenomenon is so strong that people will act against their self-interest if doing so is in line with their identity. As authors Chip and Dan Heath explain in their fantastic book Switch, the identity model of decision-making is "why an auto mechanic in Oklahoma would vote against a Democrat who'd give him health insurance, and why a Silicone Valley millionaire would vote against a Republican who'd cut her taxes." 

 The takeaway here: identities are so, so central to the way that humans make decisions that if you can connect with that identity right off the bat with your writing, your reader will automatically be more interested in what you have to say, be more likely to stick around and read more to find out what you’re about, and will be more likely to believe what you say to be true. (Because our brains looooooove finding stuff that reinforces our beliefs).

What does that look like practically?

— Writing in language that your readers actually use.

— Demonstrably understanding the real problems they have, things they want, and issues they worry about.

— Giving them information in the order that’s most useful to them.

— Following up on the implicit or explicit promises that your copy makes to them with serious value.

Among other things, all of which could add up to a whole course. (Or, you know, some flash consulting with your favorite copywriter. Hint hint, nudge nudge.)

But what you really need to remember is this:

Nobody cares about you or what you have to say until you give them a strongly compelling reason to. You prove otherwise not with algorithms, but by appealing to their sense of identity. You stay in the game by following up that proof with ridiculous amounts of value. Simple as that.

This post was published as part of Makeness Media’s Bravery Blogging project. To find out more about it, click here or search #braveblogging on social media.

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