Note: Since writing this post, I have created a special free training to help you build your audience. On an average book launch, I get about 30% of my email list to buy the first day, shooting my book to the top of the Amazon rankings.

You can get some of my best tips to build your audience now (whether you have a book or not) in my Get Your Book Selling quickstart, which is a free 7-day email series. My best tip to build your audience will show up in your inbox on Day 3. Enjoy!

Get it! Get Your Book Selling 7-Day Email Series »

I was excited to read this research about how people can’t tell the difference between something they read and something they experience. Stories, as it turns out, “stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life,” according to NYT journalist Annie Murphy Paul.

The article goes on to say that, “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” I love this, because the reason I write both fiction and non-fiction is to express my ideas to others and connect with them.

While the idea of telling stories to help people understand and relate to you is not new, this research lights a path for how you or your company can build an audience online: by applying the same principles used in fiction to tell stories about yourself.

In your story, you are the protagonist, and the first rule in fiction is to establish empathy for the protagonist of the story. This gets people invested in the character and makes them care about him or her, which means they keep reading. So it goes without question that if you want to build an audience, you need to elicit empathy from your readers.

How do you elicit empathy? A few guidelines:

Don’t make your website all about you.

A lot of people and companies do this on their websites and it absolutely sucks. It’s terrible. They wonder why they have no readers. It’s because in blogging, you have to elicit empathy as a secondary goal to providing something of value. Which is the caveat to this method—you have to slip in your empathic stories in between providing lots of useful stuff to others. Like in my first announcement about my divorce, which went crazy on social media but looks like it didn’t because I reprinted it under a new link, and it lost all its social love, I start with a story but also offer a list of digital housekeeping tasks.

Make a game of it.

Socialpunk (Socialpunk Trilogy #1)This is how I write characters in fiction. Within the first five pages, I try to make the reader feel some sort of empathy for my character. In the second novel I wrote, Socialpunk (which is free in digital form on just about every major retailer right now), I played a game with myself to fit at least 10 empathetic miniature stories into the first 30 paragraphs. People loved the main character, Ima, because of it. And the game left me lots of room to sneak empathy in subtly, because even in fiction, you can’t wax on about a character ad nauseum.

Hit on universal human emotions.

The seven universal emotions are anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise, and according to Helio Fred Garcia, author of The Power of Communication, “… attention is an emotion-driven phenomenon… Only when we have an audience’s attention can we then move them to rational argument.” It follows then that emotion is the key to connecting with the audience and must happen before we convince them to take an action, like joining our email list.

Also, it might not matter which emotion you hit on; a happy post is no better than a sad post at attracting an audience. The Wall Street Journal reports on research that Robert Zatorre, neuroscientist at McGill University, published about our emotional connection to music:

“Emotionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs. This makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat the behavior.

Measuring listeners’ responses, Dr. Zatorre’s team found that the number of goose bumps observed correlated with the amount of dopamine released, even when the music was extremely sad. The results suggest that the more emotions a song provokes—whether depressing or uplifting—the more we crave the song.”

Don’t mistake sympathy for empathy.

It’s a fine line to tow between empathy and sympathy. When Mike Birbiglia first tried to turn his stand-up act into the movie Sleepwalk With Me, he couldn’t figure out why the audience didn’t laugh at certain scenes, even though those were some of his best bits during his stand-up. When portrayed in the movie, though, people just felt sorry for him.

What he realized, eventually, was that people weren’t laughing because it wasn’t clear in the movie that he (the main character) would be okay by the end. In his stand-up routine, this was obvious because he was a successful comedian.

Early viewers of the movie felt sympathy for him, not empathy, which undermined the entire story. So he added a present-day narration and told the story in flashbacks, and instantly, those scenes got the laughter they deserved.

Create villains.

Every great blogger has villains. Tim Ferriss is fighting the idea that you have to work 40 years at a job you hate so you can retire and finally start living. Seth Godin is fighting the idea that you have to be chosen to become an artist. Cory Doctorow is fighting the companies who are fighting piracy with pointless digital rights management software.

Sometimes bloggers even fight each other, or other people in their lives. Penelope Trunk first dissed Tim Ferriss in a blog post, and he waited nearly a year and a half to diss her in his The Next Web speech (and to brilliantly precede her in Google rankings for “Tim Ferriss Scam” with a new blog post). She fired back that she loved his new book. (Or maybe she came back and said that later. Either way, the post I linked to is entertaining.) And while I can’t say I would ever want to be involved in a battle like this on a large scale, I find both of them more fascinating because of it.

Don’t talk about your quest for money.

There is no faster way to lose your audience than to make it clear that you want to directly profit off of them. Jeffrey Eugenides, in a speech given to the 2012 Whiting Award winners, said, “To write for money, to censor your true feelings and thoughts or adopt ideas because they’re popular requires a writer to suppress the very promptings that got him or her writing in the first place.”

I think this is complete bullshit. Of course writers write for money; it is not inherently evil to charge for your work. But for some reason, the public believes this, so don’t talk about money if you can help it. It can elicit feelings of jealousy, anger, and frustration instead of empathy.

Don’t water down your message.

Furthermore, don’t edit yourself to please people. Yes, you might be able to build an audience as big as The Pioneer Woman if you are never negative, but even Ree Drummond has haters. It’s easier to just have an opinion and state it in a safe place, which is probably on your website. You’ll make people mad, but you’ll be happier, and you’ll make a subset of people happier, and then they can be your audience.

Also, stop worrying about whether you are right or not. When I used to write about Generation Y, people who were 10 years older than me often told me I would regret my words later, because I was so wrong about everything in life. But honestly, I don’t regret my words. The thing I regret is how terrible of a writer I was, and how people kept telling me I was great and no one was honest enough to tell me that I wasn’t that good.

No matter how old you are, there will be someone 10 years older than you who thinks you are stupid. I love how Lena Dunham, the 26-year-old writer, producer, and star of Girls, bashed James Franco’s critique of her show in this weeks issue of Entertainment Weekly, saying, “I think someone told James Franco that it’s his duty to have an opinion on everything that happens in culture. We are going to find out that he’s in the CIA, he’s a fireman, and he’s going on the next moon mission with Lance Bass.”

You’ll get criticism no matter what you do, because the majority of people think it is their job to edit the world rather than create it. Just ignore them and do your thing. And forget about how young you are; opinions are ephemeral, and you’ll be a different person 10 years from now.

Let people freak you out.

Speaking of Girls, most of my friends and family in their 40’s and 50’s just don’t get it, and especially don’t get how Lena Dunham won an Emmy for it. But for my generation, Dunham represents the twentysomething female experience well. Women in my generation dated the gay guy in high school, lost their jobs in the recession, made out with a girlfriend to get free alcohol, and had awkward, degrading sex with with a guy who later texted her a picture of his junk that was meant for someone else.

So it’s no surprise that Zosia Mamet, who plays Shoshana (arguably the most interesting girl on Girls), has strangers coming up to her on the street, spilling about their sex lives.

It reminds me of how when I worked at Braintree, my friend B tried to set my other friend S up with a guy in Chicago who happened to read my blog. “He only wanted to talk about you,” S told me.

For awhile afterward, I thought, “OMG I have to stop writing about my life online. What if I attract a stalker, or a murderer?” But this is probably the best sign that you are doing something right with empathy—when your fans are so passionate that they freak you out a bit. That’s what you should aim for.

And if you can build a huge audience at the same time, well, that’s okay too.

Note: Since writing this post, I have created a special free training to help you build your audience. On an average book launch, I get about 30% of my email list to buy the first day, shooting my book to the top of the Amazon rankings.

You can get some of my best tips to build your audience now (whether you have a book or not) in my Get Your Book Selling quickstart, which is a free 7-day email series. My best tip to build your audience will show up in your inbox on Day 3. Enjoy!

Get it! Get Your Book Selling 7-Day Email Series »

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