Part of the series “Thought Leadership and Impact”
I’ve been a professional writer now for 10 years, and the journey I’ve taken (and am still pursuing) has been eye-opening and instructional in ways I never imagined. I’ve learned so much — about my inner most self, my fears and vulnerabilities, my strengths and capabilities, and my challenges as a writer. I’ve also learned first-hand what it takes to build a “tribe” of amazing followers who really get your stuff, and engage with your messages in a way that enriches your life.
As I approach reaching 700,000 followers on LinkedIn (which I remain humbled and amazed by), I’ve also experienced the difficulties in remaining personally engaged with my tribe, while also preserving time to continue writing, coaching, speaking and training. These endeavors are vitally important to me as a person but also for my livelihood and my business. Yet I never want to become the type of writer who has no time to connect with their followers. That’s just not how I want this to go.
Every month, I receive questions from folks on LinkedIn and beyond about writing, speaking and building an engaged following. They ask questions such as, “How did you get so many followers?” or “How can I write on Forbes too?” or “What do you think helps your writing touch people?” I’m hoping this post will help answer those questions.
I began to try to dimensionalize my answers to these questions when I experienced my first viral post. Watching an article blow up on the internet is a wild thing to experience. That first viral piece was a Forbes interview with leadership expert Tim Elmore on the 7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors That Keep Children From Growing Into Leaders in January 2014. Currently, it’s achieved 7.7 million views and is still climbing.
The 2nd most viral post I’ve written to date is on LinkedIn, about 6 Toxic Behaviors That Push People Away: How To Recognize Them In Yourself and Change Them, from June 2014. That post achieved 3.3 million views and more than 1,000 comments.
In examining those pieces and other writing that has found a large audience, I believe they exhibit the following traits:
- They talk about life topics that a vast number of people on the planet have either witnessed or personally experienced, and have something to say about
- They offer raw, unfiltered straight talk that gets to the heart of the problem and doesn’t skirt around the hard issues
- The tips and strategies are meant to uplift and help the reader, not tear down or put down
- The material is somewhat eye-opening, making us think about ourselves in new and different ways that (hopefully) lead to change
- Both the writer and the interviewee of these posts share with honesty that they too have exhibited the very same “negative” traits and behaviors that we’re discussing. The writer and interviewee are not “above” these challenges.
I’ve taken hundreds of missteps as a writer over these years, and have learned some terribly painful lessons. But these lessons have also helped me learn what to focus more on, and what to avoid, in order to enjoy and benefit from the process of writing.
What would I say is the most important thing to achieve in your writing if you want to build a tribe that enriches your life?
My answer is this:
Be as real, unfiltered, vulnerable and honest as you possibly can.
How do we do that then? How do we “find brave” in our writing and our messages? How do we share an intense realness, authenticity and honesty that has the ability to help people see themselves and their lives with a new lens?
I believe there are 6 behaviors that will help us get there:
Don’t hide away the embarrassing, shameful stuff of your life – tell your true story and turn your “mess into a message.”
Many writers and thought leaders believe that they have to portray themselves as perfect, strong, and invincible in order to be respected. But that’s the opposite of the truth. Anyone who presents themselves as constantly “all together,” without any foibles, insecurities or flaws, is just offering a fake, veneered picture of their lives and personalities. And that can’t generate true connection from others.
No human is perfect and has it all figured out. All of us have failed in incredibly painful ways that make us feel ashamed and humiliated. It’s the real stuff of our lives that readers long to be exposed to, because in our sharing our realness, others are given permission to see and experience the raw reality of their own lives.
Don’t try to prove your expertise
I made this mistake often when I started out – I felt that I had to “prove” my credibility before I could say anything important. In the beginning of my articles, I’d offer lots of information that I hoped would verify and validate that I had the right to talk about what I was sharing.
The reality is that you have a right to your opinion and while it’s often helpful to explain how you arrived at your ideas or mindsets, you don’t need to waste precious paragraphs trying to prove that people should listen to you.
Don’t just post something then walk away
When people comment on your work, engage with them. They’ve taken time out of their crushingly busy day to tell you what your ideas mean to them. Respect and appreciate that, and to the fullest degree possible, engage with them in a conversation that helps to bring the ideas forward.
Don’t let your fears of rejection and ridicule keep you from stating your brave and honest opinions, especially when what you believe goes against the grain
New writers are often deathly afraid of being judged, ridiculed and attacked for their beliefs and ideas, so they don’t take the leap and share their honest thoughts. I can help you with this by sharing one irrefutable fact – if you’re saying anything at all that’s important, you WILL be ridiculed, judged and put down for what you believe. Understand and accept that, as a writer, if you’re doing important work, lots of people will vehemently disagree with (and even hate) what you say. Build a healthy boundary around yourself and your work, and keep going.
Develop sticky language, and memorable concepts and frameworks
In my work on Forbes.com, I’ve observed bestselling authors like Terry Real, Harriet Lerner, Gretchen Rubin, Brené Brown and Shawn Achor talk about their work. One thing you’ll see very clearly is that many memorable writers are in some ways humorous and highly iconoclastic, but also share their ideas with language and frameworks that make their concepts memorable for a lifetime. The language they share, the idioms they develop, the categorizations they construct, and the conceptual frameworks they’ve spent hundreds of hours to refine make their work stick with us, whereas millions of other ideas from other writers just disappear from our minds the minute after we’ve read them.
An example from Brené Brown’s now famous TED talk The Power of Vulnerability is this:
“You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”
How very powerful and memorable these 3 short sentences are.
(For more on stickiness, check out the helpful book Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. The authors explore what makes ideas “sticky” and share 6 critical traits: They are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and they are stories.)
Don’t write to “find” an audience. Write what has to be written, and your audience will come.
Finally and most importantly, when you write, share the most astounding and new ideas that you’ve discovered – ideas that have shocked, uplifted, educated and changed you. Share what has altered your own life. When you do that, the right audience who needs your messages will find you.