This post is primarily for authors of practical nonfiction. However, vulnerability and bringing oneself on the page is an essential tool for connecting with readers regardless of your nonfiction genre. In some types of writing it’s optional (if you’re writing an historical biography); in others, like memoir and personal essay, vulnerability is the foundation of the entire thing. For all the genres in between—from conscious business to revealing corruption in the food industry—writers can strengthen their bond with readers by bringing themselves into the story. Even if you’re writing about something totally new to you, show us your journey in relationship to the subject.
Many new authors want to be seen as authorities on their topic, because they think that will inspire more readers to buy their books. That’s an ego-driven goal; it focuses on the author’s needs rather than the reader’s. If readers don’t feel a connection with an author, they’re not likely to resonate to that person’s work—or to share it with their friends and colleagues. The author’s reach will be limited.
Knowledge is objective. Given enough resources (time, money, access), anyone can attain it. But knowledge alone is not enough to gain credibility with your reader. Readers want to know you’ve been where they are, and you’ve made it through. They want to know you felt what they’re feeling. In short, they need empathy and compassion. Credibility comes from sharing your experience.
There’s a Buddhist saying: “May this experience serve to awaken compassion.” Personal experience means that you have a true understanding of what your reader is going through; this comes across on the page, whether or not you want it to, through a variety of verbal microexpressions. Personal experience isn’t necessary in every nonfiction topic, but it’s particularly important if you’re writing about challenges in the areas of health, emotions or finances. It’s also essential if you’re writing about spiritual awakening (which sometimes begins as a ‘falling away’ of everything that’s familiar and comfortable in a person’s life).
I don’t believe in “self-help,” because the phrase implies that who we are needs improvement, and I believe we are all, at our essence, whole. The task of a lifetime is not to fix some perceived flaw, but to discover our wholeness. However, I do believe in books that metaphorically walk alongside people and empower them to navigate difficult situations in their lives—situations in which the author has first-hand experience.
A Ph.D matters if you’re writing about neuroscience or quantum physics. If you’re writing about meditation or mindfulness, formal training in those areas is useful-to-essential, because training teaches you to do those things responsibly, to be accountable for your own projections and issues. And if you’re writing about coaching or therapy, professional certification lends credibility, as well as offering the same benefits. Certification exists for a reason: To protect both client and practitioner. But ‘authority’ without personal experience is empty.
A Brief History of Narrative Distance
In the past, the model of authority was someone who knew it all and imparted their knowledge to others. Top-down information. Hierarchical, patriarchical, us-them. It was a zero-sum game: I have information, and you don’t. Aside from those who wrote memoirs, “experts” weren’t those who had experienced challenges, or if they had, they didn’t talk about it publicly. Emotional distance reigned supreme. It was a holdover from the journalistic rule of objectivity: Never insert yourself into the story. But that’s not necessarily what resonates with readers. Connecting deeply with readers is all about being relatable. It makes sense: If you want to establish a relationship, you need to offer something the reader can relate to. Heart to heart. Whole self to whole self.
I’m not harping on Ph.Ds, but rather at our cultural obsession of worshipping at the altar of knowledge at the expense of wisdom. Knowledge is most effectively used when it can support and explain personal experience.
This is completely the opposite of the model that traditional nonfiction writers (including me) are used to: We gather facts (research) first, then back it up with anecdotal evidence. But to deeply connect with readers, especially those who are experiencing significant challenges, the anecdotal—the experience—comes first, backed up by data. Experience, not knowledge, is what creates resonance with readers.
Resonant Storytelling in Action: Mindsight
Among academic professionals who have branched into authorship, Daniel J. Siegel, MD, is one of the best. Mindsight, his landmark book about using mindfulness to rewire the brain in very specific ways, is a great example. Siegel rarely uses the word ‘mindfulness’, sensing (correctly) that it might scare some people off. Yet this book is as non-woo-woo as it gets. Thoroughly grounded in primary and secondary research, filled with case studies, thick with sensory experience and characterization, it’s super-engaging.
But here’s where he really shines: Siegel shares his own challenges—with medical school, as a parent, as a therapist and simply as a human being. He uses his own stumbles as anecdotes to show the reader that he understands what they’re experiencing. He’s walking with us, not dictating to us. In one chapter, he walks us through his mishandling of a conflict between his two young children—and it’s as compelling as a short story. He peppers an amusing and relatable description of sibling rivalry with observations of his subjective physiological experience, as well as neuroscience references. He also presents himself as a relatable Everydad, with asides like, “My son was not yet a teenager, and so he still listened to me.”
At no time does Siegel attempt to protect (or project) an “image.” And as readers, we like this guy. We might groan at his Dad Jokes, but we like him, and we trust him.
Sharing your own vulnerability conveys empathy. Siegel has immense empathy for his readers, and he goes out of his way to make it clear that he’s human, just like us.
Knowledge is Temporary. Wisdom is Timeless.
Here’s the other thing: What we know today is not what we’re going to know in 20 or 50 or 200 years. Quantum physics may or may not be “the answer.” There may or may not be a convergence of science and spirituality. There are parts of the human body that serve functions we don’t yet understand. Yet the human experience—that life always presents challenges, that we’re all burdened with ego (and, uh, that it’s the ego that feels burdened)—can lead to wisdom, and wisdom is timeless.
I can’t count the number of manuscripts—and even published books—I’ve read that suggest doing something without showing a) how the author does it, and b) what it looks like in practice. If you want to help people overcome fear, for example, (or embrace fear, or transcend it), the single most effective way to resonate with readers is to show how you overcame fear (or embraced it, or transcended it). If you want to help people learn to observe their thoughts—which I initially found to be about as difficult as peeling an onion with a rubber band—show how you learned, what it was like for you, what distracted you then and what distracts you now.
From the reader’s perspective, the ultimate credibility is whether you’ve lived what you write about. If you’re writing about using uncertainty or crisis as a learning opportunity, have you actually been through a significant crisis or period of uncertainty? If you’re writing about how to create money, have you ever experienced not knowing where your next meal was coming from, and emerged from that? (And if so, have you taken into account the privileges you’ve experienced that might have factored into that?)
Unless you’ve lived through what you’re writing about, you may have authority, but you don’t have credibility. You may have multiple doctorates, or you may have been teaching meditation for 20 years; you may have been to dozens, even hundreds, of retreats, or you may have been a CEO for half a dozen Fortune 500 companies—but unless you’ve worked through the issues you’re writing about, and you bring that onto the page, your writing will remain theoretical.
Photo credit: ©Tim Gouw/Unsplash
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Once again I’m circling back to telling stories. I want to help moms to homeschool. When I give them “how to” I sound arrogant and critical. My stories not only show “how”, but reveal my imperfect path and hopefully the real me.
What a great idea, Jennifer (and I imagine the moms appreciate it, too)! I walk that line all the time, too (including/especially on this blog). Creating connection through stories opens up so much more space for all of us to be who we are. Good luck, and please keep me posted on your work.