Keeping your topic focused on one idea is critical to holding your audience.
That means you will have to weed out important ideas that aren’t MOST important. In the process, you must be willing to discard a lot of great insights to let the key insight shine through.
This is not the same thing as “dumbing it down.” Rather, it is the process of stripping an idea down to its most critical essence. It is the pursuit of simplicity.
If you can’t state your idea in one sentence, it is not simple enough.
The simple secret to hooking your readers
My biggest challenge in blogging is filtering out ancillary information when I sit down to write. The longer I spend researching a topic, the more steeped in detail I get, the easier it is to lose sight of the most important idea.
Journalists call this burying the lead.
They are taught to write news stories using an inverted pyramid. The most important information, the lead, is in the first paragraph. The lead captures the core message and critical elements of the story. Other supporting details and background information follows.
With this, readers can get the essence of the story in the first paragraph. Deviate from this formula, and you bury the lead. The reader may never get to your main idea. The inverted pyramid news writing style works for blogs too.
The facts can fail you
In the excellent book Made to Stick, the authors tell a story that illustrates how easy it is to lose the core idea of a story.
On the first day of class, a journalism professor announced the first assignment. It was to write the lead for a news story with the following facts:
“Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.”
The budding journalists pecked away at the first lead of their careers. Most of them reordered the facts and condensed them into a single sentence like:
“Governor Pat Brown, Margaret Mead, and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the Beverly Hills High School faculty Thursday in Sacramento …”
The teacher collected the leads, scanned them and set them down. After a pause, he said, “The lead to the story is ‘There will be no school next Thursday.’”
The takeaway for bloggers is that capturing the lead, the core idea, is more than reporting the facts of a story. It is communicating the meaning behind it.
Find your one thing
In the movie City Slickers, cowboy guide Curly offers advice to Billie Crystal’s character on finding the meaning of life: simplify the complex. It is good advice for bloggers too. When you figure out that one thing, what it means to your audience, you’ve done your job.
One last thing
This post was inspired by Mark Schaefer. He was generous enough to advise me on a blog post I was working on. He diplomatically pointed out I had too many ideas in one article. Instead of one focused topic, it had three. He was right, it sucked.
I’ll always remember his advice. He said, “Pick one theme and riff on it.” Or, as Curly said, “Remember: just one thing.”