The Self-Interest Gap: Learning how to care less about what you want to write and more about what the audience wants to know

Self-interest is perhaps the one commonality humans share these days and it can be summed up in a simple question: “What’s in it for me?”

When you are on the “receiver” end of the process, it’s something we understand very easily. We know almost instinctively what is of value to us and what we care about right away. That said, when we put on the “sender” hat, we tend to focus more on what we want to tell people, forgetting that those people have their own set of interests we should be focused on.

Case in point, I asked the students to write a brief based on a press release about a fire. Here are the opening lines of a few of those briefs:

  • Firefighters responded to an engulfed single-story house shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday…
  • Boone County Firefighters responded to a call of a Sturgeon house fire…
  • Sunday evening, Boone County Firefighters responded to a call at 6pm on an electrical house fire…
  • A structure fire occurred at 520 S. Ogden in Sturgeon on the evening of Sunday…
  • Boone County Firefighters responded to a home engulfed in black smoke…

What we learn essentially in these things is either:

  1. Firefighters responded to a fire.
  2. A fire occurred somewhere.

If you were on the “receiver” end of the information, how much of this stuff would you care about? Of course the firefighters responded to the fire. That’s what they do. Also, fires occur everywhere from giant farm fields to the burn barrel in my yard. However, as a “sender” we tend to ignore that until we are forced to switch perspectives.

In thinking about this issue, I posed a question to the students meant to tap into that idea of self-interest: “Let’s say you get home after class and your roommate says, ‘Hey, your mom was trying to reach you. There was a fire at your house…’ What would be the first thing you would want to know?

Answers came quickly and easily:

  1. Is everyone OK?
  2. How bad was the fire?
  3. What happened out there?

In this case, a good response might be:

“The fire destroyed the house, but nobody got hurt.”

That’s the core of a good lead, with a strong focus on what matters most (big ticket item) and what people cared about most (answer to the first two sentences). When it’s your mom or your house, you have specific interests that a good source of information will attend to. If you can take that perspective and play on the audience’s self-interest, you can have a much sharper focus when it comes to telling the story directly and clearly.

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