When Martin Luther King Jr wrote his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, he underestimated his audience. He wanted to describe how America had failed to deliver on its promise of freedom and equality. Torn between the metaphor of a bad cheque and painting a picture of the dream he had for America's future, he decided to play it safe. He stepped up to the podium with his script in his hand—and nowhere in it was any mention of a dream.
But as he neared the end of his speech, King happened to stumble over a clumsy sentence. Instead of calling his audience to “go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction”, he improvised. What came out was: “Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
Something shifted. Suddenly, singer Mahalia Jackson, who had accompanied King on many of his previous speeches and was standing nearby, sensed what would move his audience. She shouted, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”—and the rest is history.
Mahalia Jackson knew King’s audience even if he didn’t. She knew they would respond to an emotive call to arms better than a metaphor about a bad cheque. She understood not just who these people were—the demographic of the crowd—but how they felt and behaved. She got into their shoes.
As an author, your relationship with your reader is the most important one you’ll ever make. You need to know not just who they are, but how they think, how they talk, how they behave. You need to know what they search for online, what they read and how much time they have to do it in. You need to know when to explain something and how to do it so they have the best chance of understanding. You also need to know when to shut up.
What's the problem?
All good non-fiction starts with the reader’s problem (read more about that here). If you understand this, you’re halfway to knowing what makes your audience tick. So research it. Look at your existing clients: what have you helped them to achieve? Why did they choose to work with you instead of someone else? If you can, chat with them to find out how you’ve been useful. Ask them for recommendations. Find out what they think your biggest strengths are as a business.
Now cast your net wider. If you write a blog or social media posts, you already have an audience that can give you feedback. Ask around to find out what issues people are dealing with in your area of expertise. When you understand what your potential clients are up against, you’ll be better equipped to write a book that will support them.
Amazon is your friend here, too. Read online reviews of other books on your subject. What do readers love about these books? What do they say is missing? Understand how your readers feel about what’s there already will help you to find the gaps in the market which your book can fill.
What's their language?
What was so special about how Martin Luther King’s speech ended up? He spoke to his audience in their language. In books, tone of voice and writing style can be the difference between making a lasting connection with your reader and being left on the shelf. Take time to read other books your ideal reader would buy. How do these authors write? Do they include real-life stories to help illustrate their point or is the information served up in short, factual chunks?
Part of speaking your reader’s language is knowing what not to say. What existing knowledge do they have? And where are they starting from? Two questions I often ask the authors I coach are:
‘Does your reader need to know this?’
‘Are they ready to hear it?’
How can you help?
What have you got that your audience needs? Once you’ve understood your reader’s problem, how they feel and think and how they need to be spoken to, it’s time to think about why you’re the missing piece in their puzzle. What makes you the best person to help them? Is it your industry knowledge? Your personal experience? Your unique approach to their problem that will change their life forever? Use your book to share what sets you apart from the crowd.
One more thing. Once you’ve done your research, don’t leave your reader behind. If you want them to read your book to the end, you need to write it for them until the end too. So with each new chapter, story or statistic, remember your reader. Do they need to know this? Are they ready to hear it? And are you speaking in the language that will move them?