What Makes Content Compelling?

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” – Kurt Vonnegut


“Compelling” is an adjective that has several different connotations, all of which apply to developing business content. Here are some dictionary definitions from around the web:

Google: “evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way”

Dictionary.com: “tending to compel, as to force or push toward a course of action”

Merriam-Webster.com: “capable of causing someone to believe or agree”

To me, the way to make something compelling is to keep the audience curious about the next moment as you draw them through your narrative and lead them to your final, irrefutable argument. As an author/creator, you want to control the silent, subtle questions they’re asking along the way. For instance, in fiction writing you want them curious about what will happen next. What is the character going to do? How will they get out of this one? You don’t want them asking questions like: What is happening? What is the character doing? Why don’t they just jump to their deaths already? These questions usually mean they’re confused, or worse, bored. But what’s the application to business content?

Business content, whether it’s advertising, marketing or PR, requires no less finesse. It’s why the tried and true problem/solution model works so well. First, describe a problem, then say how you’re going to solve it. You see it in 30-second television spots all day. “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” That’s a problem. In one sentence, the author has created an untenable situation that triggers a crisis response in many viewers, begging the question, “How will he/she get out of this?” Life Alert, of course! (I hope I didn’t spoil it for you. I’m assuming that the only segment of the U.S. population that hasn’t seen this commercial is newborn infants.) This is the power of the emotional hook.

Even in the most factual presentations, it’s important to create this emotional hook. Don’t just drone on about features and benefits. Make sure your audience doesn’t just understand the benefit, but feels it in their gut. The most reasoned person doesn’t buy what they need, they buy what they want, whether it’s an idea or a new pair of shoes. A need can be reasoned, but a want is felt. The job of the content developer is to make them want what you know they need. Top salespeople have this in their DNA.

Some salespeople will pitch all the facts and figures about their good or service on the assumption that the audience will simply understand the deeper meaning and relevance to their lives. But the mind searches for meaning in stories. It doesn’t tend to find meaning in facts and figures, unless you’re already an expert in said same. We do our greatest learning through stories. It’s why clergy and scientists alike speak in parables. The Bible doesn’t simply say, “Be kind to each other.” It illustrates the lesson over and over again in countless emotional stories. The visceral effect of stories is why word problems are such effective tools for teaching math.

By “visceral” I don’t mean to say that a story has to be a tearjerker or laugh-out-loud funny, although that doesn’t hurt. Visceral means that something is felt in the body. Albert Einstein demonstrated his Special Theory of Relativity through a story of a man in a box in which both are falling at the same rate of speed. The reader is invited to feel the man’s weightlessness until the box slows down and the man starts to feel his own weight. To the layperson, this is a much more effective description than a chalkboard full of formulas. It’s how he got the general public to buy into his theories. He was quite the pitchman! The story holds their interest.

One way to maintain interest throughout your story, whether it’s the great American novel or a Powerpoint slideshow, is to daisy chain your ideas together. Each idea or thought should introduce the next. Notice how I’ve introduced the subject of the following paragraph in the last sentence of the preceding paragraph throughout this article. This is just one technique for pulling your reader through the piece.

Another technique is to periodically ask questions throughout the content, such as “What do you think is the most effective clickbait on a website?” Pause. “Lists!” And then list the various lists that draw attention: celebrity lists, moneymaking lists, beauty tip lists, etc. And, of course, lists are just one more technique for easily creating compelling content.

Finally, to be compelling you must be clear. Make sure your ideas are laid out in such a way that the broadest possible segment of your target audience can understand them. It will increase the value of your content. Even if you’re writing to an audience of experts, don’t avoid giving elementary details for fear of speaking down to them. Experts will forgive you for being clear; laypeople won’t forgive you for being confusing. Besides, you can’t guarantee that experts are going to be the only people who will consume your content. If it’s compelling and clear enough experts will have something with which they can educate laypeople, for which both parties will be grateful.

So work to embody all three connotations of the word “compelling” in your work. Evoke interest, call your audience to action and be irrefutable. Anything less will likely get lost in the static.

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