The Muselet #22: Hooked
But of everything I learned, the most important lesson came at the beginning, on the very first day of my very first job. The lesson was, “Nobody wants to read your shit.”
— intro to Nobody wants to read your sh*t
I discovered Increment this week. Increment is a beautifully designed online magazine “about how teams build and operate software systems at scale.” I had never really heard about it, but looking at the website, the lay-out. Wow! Looking at the topics of the magazine issues, also: Wow! Increment checks all the boxes of something I’d want to read.
So I started to read a few articles. But somehow, I kept getting distracted. I found myself switching away. Sometimes I managed to read through a full article, but nothing really stuck. Somehow, things fell flat.
Then I switched to my Kindle, and opened one of the books on my queue — The Talent Code, and started reading the introduction chapter:
Every journey begins with questions, and here are three:
How does a penniless Russian tennis club with one indoor court create more top-twenty women players than the entire United States?
How does a humble storefront music school in Dallas, Texas, produce Jessica Simpson, Demi Lovato, and a succession of pop music phenoms?
How does a poor, scantily educated British family in a remote village turn out three world-class writers?
Now we’re talking.
Here’s a quote from a good article about the art of writing:
The sole purpose of the first sentence in a story is to get you to read the second sentence.
I concluded this is what was missing in some Increment articles — and it is nothing against Increment specifically, I just noticed it there.
In Nobody wants to read your sh*t we learn that a good story always has three acts: Hook, Build, Payoff.
The one relevant here is the hook: How do you seduce the reader to read your email, article, or book? Given the infinite supply of content on the Internets these days, how do you get people to read “your shit?”
You have to start with a hook. A punch.
I looked through a few of the Increment intros and realized they lacked that compelling hook. They didn’t have that punch.
A few weeks ago I lead with the intro of another book I read — Humankind: A Hopeful History:
This is a book about a radical idea. An idea that’s long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history. At the same time, it’s an idea that’s legitimised by virtually every branch of science. One that’s corroborated by evolution and confirmed by everyday life. An idea so intrinsic to human nature that it goes unnoticed and gets overlooked. If only we had the courage to take it more seriously, it’s an idea that might just start a revolution. Turn society on its head. Because once you grasp what it really means, it’s nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you’ll never look at the world the same again.
So what is this radical idea?
That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.
Intros have to have punch.
To be honest, this isn’t a new discovery for me. I’ve attempted to apply this from the beginning in The Muselet.
“Listen Zef, I see your yellow — influence — is very high, I usually summarize this personality dimension as party, party, party!”
I had talked to various coaches over the years. I had taken various types of personality tests. Never in my wildest dreams had I expected to hear “Zef” and “party” be mentioned in the same sentence.
Yet, barely two weeks later, there I stood, in front of a group of 10 other “emerging leaders” in our company, clumsily putting up a handmade drawing on the wall visualizing what I had discovered was my newfound purpose.
The audience squinted, trying to figure out what my drawing was supposed to represent.
“It’s a party bus” I clarified.
What had happened to me?
“I don’t often do this,” my boss said, “but I’d almost insist on you watching The Last Dance. Let’s talk about it afterwards.”
My boss used to be a pretty serious basketball player. He often makes basketball references. “You cannot always be Pippen,” he’d say, “sometimes you have to be MJ.”
Solid advice! If... well, you know who those people are, and what they represent.
Praise in public, criticize in private.
Take any feedback training, read almost any management book, this is the advice you’ll hear. It’s so wide-spread that it’s just considered fact. This how things ought to be done. Period.
But should it?
Contrary to popular belief, achieving your goals is simple.
Simple — I said — not easy.
Realizing the importance of a hook is one of those green car things. You may not have noticed that most engaging stories always start with a hook, but once you do — you’ll recognize it everywhere. And if it’s missing, you’ll notice it as well.
Something to consider the next time you write something: how will you start? What will be your hook?