Back when I worked on the editorial staff of Penguin, my division had an annual tradition at Christmas time. We called it the “Holiday Bake-Off.”
The members of the editorial department would take turns with the members of the publicity/marketing department to each bake their own dessert that would then be judged by the other department. Then, first, second, and third place would be awarded to the three most popular dishes.
I actually baked a fair amount in those days, so I decided to wow everyone with something exotic and awesome. I found a recipe for persimmon date bars, which were dessert bars that—except for the lemon icing—were sweetened entirely by fruit. The bars came out as good as I had hoped, and by the day of the bake-off I was totally pumped to see what happened. When we set everything up, I put a little sign next to my creation that said “Persimmon Date Bars.” And I geared myself up not only for praise, but first place in the competition.
The problem was, nobody would go near them.
It turns out that people had no interest in desserts sweetened with dates and persimmons. They did, however, nearly finish the miniature apple pies that a fellow editor friend of mine had made. They nearly finished a variety of other dishes as well.
The day after the bake-off, we put out the leftovers for everyone else on the floor to enjoy. When this happened I labeled my neglected dessert once again. But this time, as a festive tribute to the curiosity people would likely have when they tried one, I called them “Holiday Wonder Bars.”
They were gone in twenty minutes.
Leading up to the bake-off, I took many steps to make that dessert. I had the idea to make a dessert sweetened almost entirely with fruit. I considered my fondness for persimmons, did an online search for recipes that contained that particular fruit, and decided to make dessert bars that were primarily sweetened with both ripened hachiya persimmons as well as dates. I went out several days before the bake-off and purchased the persimmons to ensure that they would be fully ripe by the time I needed to bake, and purchased other ingredients I didn’t have as well. I then checked the persimmons’ ripeness on an ongoing basis before commencing with the actual baking the night before the contest. After the bars were baked, I cut them up and wrapped them up on a tray. Finally, I folded an index card in half and wrote on one half the title that would identify them on the table: Persimmon Date Bars.
This index card represented how I had chosen to introduce the dessert to my co-workers. I went through a series of many different steps to go from deciding to bake a dessert for the contest to actually presenting the dessert for consideration. But the final step was to decide what to call them and then put together materials that represented that decision. Each person who creates a title for content, writes copy that represents their message to newcomers, or otherwise markets that message to people unfamiliar with it are all doing the same thing: they are packaging their message.
But many people package their message in a way that’s similar to what I did when I named my dessert on that index card. During my time at Penguin not devoted to baking contests, I read the non-fiction proposals of a number of authors who came to us looking to get a deal; they titled their project with a term they made up (e.g. “Grainify Your Life!”), featured a particularly technical term (e.g. “The Moiety Diet”), or featured a term that was obscure to most people because of its roots in a practice from India or China from over 5,000 years ago (e.g. “Xing Qi”). Along similar lines, many people have advertised a product that is given a title that somehow refers to some aspect of their content that makes total sense once we’ve delved in and seen what it all means. And we continually receive newsletter after newsletter in which the subject line that shows up in our inboxes is something like “March Newsletter” or “This Week from (Name of Company).”
The morning after the bake-off, my boss’s wife called in to speak with him. But in reporting back to her the events of the contest, he had apparently told her about my dessert that almost no one had touched. “Is it true that you made a dessert out of figs?” she asked when I answered the phone. “Dates,” I corrected her. “I made persimmon date bars.” By calling my dessert by that name, I held the misguided belief that the first thing people wanted to know about my contribution was that I had made a dessert sweetened almost entirely by exotic fruits. But all that she heard when he told her what I had made was that there was dried fruit in the recipe. And she didn’t even know which fruit it was!
It was in this moment that I realized that I had to repackage it if anyone was to actually, you know, eat them.
Why would I ever have done such a thing as package my dessert with a food choice that could be mistaken for figs? Why do people call the newsletter they send out in March a “March Newsletter,” or give their book proposal the title of some obscure practice that was developed in India or China over 5,000 years ago?
After he tried one of the “Holiday Wonder Bars,” my boss exclaimed to me, “Wow, these are good!” I had originally believed that I should have packaged my dessert based on my own values instead of the values of people like my boss who were perfectly open to an interesting dessert—as long as they didn’t know it was interesting before they tried it. All of us who have mis-packaged our work in this way are packaging our message not based on what is important to our audience, but what is important to us.
Through an ongoing commitment to sharing something, like the many steps I took to create the dessert bars, we develop an intimate understanding of our message. The person who has committed years to their obscure subject has spent a long time developing nuanced ways to think about it—and their thought process becomes the default way to present it to new audiences. The person who thought of the perfect analogy for the most important part of their message can’t wait to share its brilliance with others: they then package it as a reference to that analogy. The person who is about to mail out a newsletter has just spent the last hour or two writing it; when they put together their to-do list that morning, they wrote down “Write newsletter and send it out.” They then label it “Newsletter” and…wait for it…send it out. In each of these instances, they relate to their message because of why it’s important to them (its credibility is based in ancient traditions, it’s what they feel is the greatest extension of their message’s cleverness, it’s what they put so much time into).
I put time into figuring out the important points of the holiday wonder bar story. I presented the concept of “packaging.” But did I talk about these things in the article’s title? No. I promised you that doing ONE THING would transform your titles and headlines. Outside of the context of this article, “packaging” is something you do to Christmas presents you’re sending to someone across the country. But you want people to click on your articles, and the title promises you that you will learn how to make that happen.
And if you’ve read this article, it’s because that headline attracted you to it.
Our work in attracting others to our vision is to craft a message that will help our audience to achieve their goals. We will therefore rally far more people to that vision when the first thing they learn about it is not what’s most important to us, but what is most important to them. We will attract far more people to our message when we do ONE THING: package it not from the inside out, but from the outside in.
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