Let me set the scene. You’re at a crowded party, having a good time, when all of the sudden a guy walks in. You can’t not see him — he’s dressed in bright clothes, has a painfully trendy haircut, and you’re pretty sure you can even spot some guyliner.
And just in case he wasn’t noticeable enough, he starts talking really loudly and he just.won’t.shut.up. “I did this, I’ve got that, I know this” on and on and on.
What’s your reaction?
“Oh God oh God please don’t come over here and start talking at me,” right?
Or maybe you turn to your friend on the couch with an awkward shrug because this guy clearly doesn’t understand how annoying he’s being. Either way, your reaction is shut down, tune out.
But what if we change it up a little? What if you’re at the same party and you see another guy come in. Dressed nicely, but not so you’d notice him right away. Kind of scopes out the room before he starts talking to people.
And when he does come over and join a conversation, he’s actually kind of quiet. But when he talks, you feel like he’s completely focused on you, actually cares about what you think, and he says really interesting things.
A totally different reaction, right? With the second guy, you want to listen to him — so much so that you’ll even physically lean in to hear him.
That’s the difference between being loud and being heard — and it applies 100% to your copywriting, content marketing, and social media too.
Here’s the thing about communicating on the Internet: it’s noisy. (And getting noisier all the time.) Most people will tell you that the answer is to get louder and louder, until you drown everyone else out. But that just puts you in an arms race with everyone else out there with a few bucks and some digital smarts.
People put soooooooooo much focus on things like clicks, views, linkbait, SEO, trending, figuring out that perfect combination of words that will reach out and smack people in the face, making them pay attention for just a second.
But all that’s about being loud.
Anyone with a decent budget and some digital smarts can be loud.
You don’t have to be loud. You just have to be heard.
By your people, of course. (#protip: you only need to be heard by your people, not by everyone in the whole wide world, ever.)
Being heard is much harder. To do that, you have to leverage relationship physics.
And that means we have to take a brief tangent into science.
So, researchers have found that most 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.
Consider Dunbar’s number. This is the theory developed by anthropologist and psychologist, Robin Dunbar, that says that any one person is able to maintain deeper, more meaningful stable relationships with up to about 150 people at one time. This means that we really only have the capacity to think about maybe 150 other people in our lives as having desires and feelings and favorite colors and childhood memories. Everyone else is background. Red shirts. Disposable cardboard cutouts moving around in the background of the drama that is your life.
When you combine this natural tendency to relegate other people to the “red shirt” category of our lives with the fact that people are exposed to upwards of 100,000 words a day, most of which boil down to “Buy me!” in some form or another, it makes sense that most people tune out pretty much everything.
Contrary to what most of the Internet tells you, the answer isn’t to become the loudest, flashiest, human equivalent of a pop-up ad you can.
It’s to change the dynamics of the conversation from what theologian Martin Buber calls an “I-it” relationship to an “I-Thou” relationship, where two people connect as equals, with mutual respect.
In an I-It relationship, you see the other person you’re interacting with as primarily a function. We tend to do this with . . . well, pretty much everyone, but especially waiters, mail workers, sales clerks, anyone who’s doing us a service.
In an I-Thou relationship though, there’s an actual connection between you and the other person, on a human-to-human level.
This is exactly the underlying concept of truly great copy and content that makes you feel connected — it’s created from a place of I-Thou. And this is hard. I mean, it’s not like you regularly see the people on the other side of the screen, so it’s very, very easy to start thinking of them in terms of numbers, segments of your mailing list, or the ever popular cash piñata.
But it always shows. Write like a human, to humans, and you get magic. Write like a human to numbers on a list, and it shows.
(Conveniently, you now know that all humans are pretty much the same when it comes to our fundamental drives, so you’re already ahead of the game when it comes to understanding your people.)
The more human you can be in the process, the better results you’ll get. It’s personal, epiphanic, and attractive as hell. Suddenly, you’re not having to chase after people’s attention — because they’re falling over themselves to give it to you.