In the post “Is your ego driving your social presence”, I asked how often you preach at your audience as an indicator of whether or not ego is driving your presence. It was a big question, and it felt like it needed it’s own conversation to fully analyze. The reality is that we all have likely preached at our audience one time or another. If we want to change it, we need to address two questions: how do we know when we are preaching, and what should we do instead?
What does preaching look like?
The first question is how do we know if you are preaching or not. There are a few easy signals that you can use to evaluate your content or topic ideas.
This is the content that tells you there is a right way and a wrong way to do something. There is no room for gray because our way is the right way. This content avoids the other options for doing something entirely or simply dismisses them as lesser options. It can breed an air of arrogance in your content that can either excite people or turn them off entirely. Any time your content has a black-and-white approach, it is most likely preaching. And to be clear, these posts don’t always read preachy. Many times they are positioned in a very professional way and may even come across as useful to your readers. But if we really looked at it, we’d have to ask “Is this content doing a disservice to my readers because it is only sharing one perspective on the solution? Is it covering all of their options or just presenting the option I want them to take?” Anytime we present one way as better than another, we are making a lot of assumptions about our readers. And you know what happens when we assume.
Telling readers what they need to be doing
We’ve all done this in one way or another. We create content that says our audience needs to do x, y, or z. I’ve definitely written this type of content. This post is an example of where I told readers what they needed to do:
I’m telling people to stop listening. But in fact, they don’t have to stop listening. They can listen and make their own decisions. I personally believe ROI is the one thing marketers can learn that would advance their career faster than anything else because I’ve seen it happen. Sometimes I tell people what to do in an effort to show my passion, but it achieves the opposite result. It creates a parent-child dynamic that is unnecessary. You are all smart adults; you can decide what is the best thing to do for yourself. Personally, I have stopped listening in that situation, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for you.
When you are creating content that makes it sound like you are a parent telling a child what to do, you are guilty of it, too. The tone of the post is counterproductive and shows a lack of respect for your audience, even if it comes from a place of good intentions.
And as I said in the post that inspired this one, if the tone of your post is coming from your ego, not what’s best for your audience. This is preaching.
Assuming you know what’s best for your audience
Speaking in generalities can be truly dangerous because many times our audiences view us as an authoritative resource and may blindly follow our recommendations
It’s worth taking the time to dive a little more into making assumptions about our audience because this is by far the biggest type of preaching I’ve seen. These are the posts that make recommendations based upon an invalidated assumption. Quite frankly, even making recommendations using validated assumptions is akin to putting your audience into a predefined stereotype that is never true. This comes from a few places.
First, you could be assuming you are like your audience, creating content about the things you prefer, and assuming everyone is just like you. For example, I’m a marketer. It is easy to think that I know what marketers want and need, but the reality is that every marketer is working within their own set of circumstances; without fully analyzing each individual’s circumstances, it is impossible to truly understand whether the content I’m creating applies to them. Speaking in generalities can be truly dangerous because many times our audiences view us as an authoritative resource and may blindly follow our recommendations.
Second, you could be using research findings based on where the majority of the audience falls and creating content that assumes everyone IS the majority. For example, The 2014 Professional Content Consumption report released by LinkedIn revealed that 61% of content revolutionaries consider professional content necessary for success. The flip side is that 39% of content revolutionaries don’t consider professional content necessary for success. If you create content that only speaks to the 61%, you are missing the opportunity to address almost 40% of the audience. This happens as a result of any kind of research, including focus groups, research studies, and surveys. Be cautious about using research as the fuel for how you address your audience. The majority will never fully represent the needs of your audience, and this is an easy way to unintentionally start stereotyping them. Think about how well stereotypes work in real life; we know most of them are absurd or have very little relevance to the real people we are trying to interact with. Creating your content strategy to speak to stereotypes means it probably won’t apply directly to anyone.
Third, you could be assuming you understand your audience’s needs, wants, and desires based on what a small segment of your audience is doing. Even if you don’t think you are like your audience, you probably think you have learned a lot about them. You pay attention to how they react to your content, what they respond to, and equally what they don’t. This is great, but don’t assume you know why. We assume it’s because of a snazzy headline, compelling writing or visualizations, or some other split test we ran. Then we create similar content, it falls flat, and we are dumbfounded. The former could have worked because you caught them at the right time, they had a great offline interaction with someone at the company, or any slew of other reasons that cause us to act in the moment. We seem to forget that the percentage of people who respond are usually the small minority, anywhere from 1-2% of the total. If we start basing all of our content on what worked best for 1-2% of our audience, we’re missing the boat on what could have worked best for the other 98-99%.
What should we do instead?
That leads us to how can we do it differently. There are several things that you could try to remove preaching from your content.
- Bring the gray into your content. Instead of black-and-white content, start unveiling the gray areas where your solution may not be best. Help people opt-in or opt-out of the solution you are offering by showing all sides of the story.
- Be clear about the scenarios where your solution will work and where it won’t. If you are creating content based upon a set criteria of factors that makes it relevant or not relevant, highlight those factors right at the beginning of the post.
- Don’t tell readers what they should and shouldn’t do. Accept that your solutions aren’t the only options. You’re audience is smart; let them make their own decisions on what to do with the information once they have it.
- Don’t make assumptions about your audience. Recognize that you don’t know what’s best for them and that it’s impossible to create content that applies to everyone.
- Speak to majority and the minority. When using research to fuel your content, try to create content for both sides of the percentages.
- Drop the stereotypes. While there are likely some commonalities amongst your audience, recognize that the combination of those commonalities is what makes each person unique. If you respect that there are humans on the other end of your content, you’ll have a better chance of creating content that takes their differences into account.