As a writer, I’ve long admired those who can – in their own unique ways – enliven millions of people with their messages, whether in a TED Talk, a blog, or a short story. I’ve found in my own writing work that generating a very high level of response requires both fresh, compelling content and a powerful way of reaching inside readers and engaging their heartstrings and their intellect.
To learn more about how we can engage and connect with thousands of readers, I was excited to catch up with Amy Newmark who has been the publisher and author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul line of books since 2008, when she and her husband and an investor group bought the company from its founders, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. Since then, she has published more than 100 new titles, doubling the number of Chicken Soup for the Soul titles in print today.
The phrase “chicken soup for the soul” has become part of the lexicon for a reason—it appeals to something basic in humanity—the desire to learn and grow through absorbing the lessons learned from enlightening personal stories. In 2007, USA Today named the original Chicken Soup for the Soul, published in 1993, one of the five most memorable books in the last quarter-century. More than 100 million Chicken Soup for the Soul books have been sold to date in the U.S. and Canada alone, with more than 250 titles available in print and eBook format, and translations into more than 40 languages.
I asked Amy to explain how the Chicken Soup for the Soul series manages to inspire and connect with such a large and loyal audience. With six years in the publisher’s job (and a twenty-five year career before that as a Wall Street analyst enticing people to buy and sell her chosen stocks), Amy knows a bit about engaging people. She also knows how to discern what content will connect with readers, and what will not. She has read tens of thousands of inspirational stories, and has the challenging job of narrowing down from thousands of submissions her final list of 101 stories for each book.
According to Amy, there are seven critical strategies for writers
1. Use the power of storytelling.
Storytelling has been mankind’s most effective way of passing on wisdom, advice, and culture throughout history. It is a powerful way for us to learn. The most successful self-help authors or motivational speakers use storytelling to spread their own messages. I bet you find in your own life that when something happens—a life-changing event, good or bad—you naturally seek the stories of other people who have already been there, done that. It’s a natural human impulse. We love hearing stories about other people in the same boat as us, whether it’s how they potty trained their three-year-old, handled the seating at a wedding, navigated a difficult work situation, or fought a serious illness.
Chicken Soup for the Soul books are primarily made up of stories written by ordinary people who have had extraordinary experiences. These people unselfishly share their stories and often reveal deeply personal moments in their lives that they have never shared with anyone before, not even their families or friends.
Tip: Make your points, and convince your audience, through storytelling. They’ll enjoy the educational process more, and your message will be far more memorable.
2. Start your stories in the action.
Forget what you were taught in seventh grade—you know—“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell what you just told them.” My son, also a writer, must take after me because he hated that approach even when he was twelve years old. I remember being frustrated when he couldn’t get higher than a B from his seventh grade English teacher, even when I was working on his stories with him. But of course, we weren’t following the instructions.
We don’t start a story with: “I am going to tell you a story about the summer that I found out I wasn’t as timid as I thought.” What we publish instead is: “As I hung over the cliff, clinging to the exposed root of a windswept tree, I realized that I was braver than I thought…”
Tip: Be courageous with your editing. Delete the first and last paragraphs of your story, and start with the action. Readers are smart, and if your story is good, the reader will get the message and learn the lesson from reading the actual story. Just skip the introductory paragraph or the concluding “lesson” paragraph, and go for the juice.
3. Focus on positive.
There is another very important ingredient we look for in our stories — a positive outlook. No one wants to pay attention to someone who is unremittingly negative.
One of my favorite passages is from a story from writer and psychologist Georgia Schaffer for our new breast cancer book. Georgia wrote about what happened when she was diagnosed with a recurrence of her breast cancer. A friend offered to drive her to chemo one day but spent the entire time talking about people who had died of cancer. It wasn’t helping Georgia at all. Georgia says in her story, “I had never realized that just like the weeds in a garden rob the flowers of vital moisture, nutrients and sunlight, so too the ‘weeds’ in my life were robbing me of the vital energy I needed. I could not afford to allow interactions with negative people.”
Tip: Focus on messages that are positive, uplifting and productive for readers. Negative stories don’t engage or move anyone forward.
4. Be brutally honest.
You’ve got to include the whole gory story. If you’re sharing a personal experience, we need to hear it all—the missteps, the good decisions and the bad, the things you wish you hadn’t said and the things that make you proud. If you were hearing a story from a friend, who was trying to help you with a problem or inspire you to do something, your friend wouldn’t hold back.
I know that in the early days of the self-help and motivational “industry” writers and speakers would use stories from third parties and not talk about themselves. But that’s changed now.
Tip: Today’s successful motivators share honestly and authentically of themselves. That is what is expected of you, and what creates the most memorable experiences for your readers.
5. Make darn sure you are passionate about your topic.
The difference between passion and indifference is palpable. We have several thousand professional freelance writers, many of whom will submit a story for every book we announce. I can tell immediately when they are just “phoning it in” versus when they are writing about something close to their hearts. If you’re not passionate about fitness, don’t try to be a fitness writer. If you are passionate about teaching piano to kids on the autism spectrum, then write about that.
Tip: It’s astounding how much better writing is when we write about something we care deeply about. The words flow easily, and we are much more convincing and engrossing.
6. Don’t get creative.
That creative writing class that you took? Forget it. Let go of those artificial techniques you learned. No one wants to read a whole paragraph about a “burnt orange leaf fluttering on a trembling branch as nature exhaled gently.” Or how you were overcome by “a tsunami wave of emotions as you watered the earth with your sorrow.” Readers want to know what happened, how it felt, what you did about it, and what you learned.
Tip: Tell your story the way you would tell it to a friend. Typically, when our writers try to get creative but still have a good story under all that verbiage, we edit like crazy—like a sculptor chipping away at the marble to reveal the truth of the figure inside.
7. Don’t tell the reader what to do.
He’s already reading your story. She’s already motivated to change. The last thing readers want is a lecture, a to-do list, or an assignment. Just tell them what happened and assume they’re insightful enough to discern the lesson and the necessary “action items” themselves.
Tip: People are best motivated when they come to the decision or realization themselves to follow a new course. Don’t preach and push.
In the end, Amy feels extremely fortunate that so many people are willing to unselfishly share their deeply personal stories to uplift and improve the lives of perfect strangers. “It’s a fabulous job, and I benefit from these stories myself, every day. They make me a better person.”
If you aspire to make an impact with your writing, learn to be more yourself. Be brutally honest, transparent, and real, and write about what lights you up and gets you out of bed in the morning. Your readers will thank you. (And take a leap – submit your story to Chicken Soup for the Soul. You just might get a publishing contract out of it).
Culled from Forbes