Writing For People Who Write
If you want to convince young people to do something, do you write for young people? Or do you write for people whom young people listen to?
Years ago, people thought of communications as a hypodermic needle or a magic bullet. Prepare your message and shoot it into your audience. One problem with that approach is that most people don’t enjoy needles. They enjoy bullets even less. Another problem with that approach, as I’ve said before, is that it’s impossible to inject your message into other people’s brains and expect it to always mean the same thing to them as it does to you.
A third problem with the hypodermic needle tactic is that people usually don’t make important decisions simply because they read an article or a book. They make important decisions after talking with other people. They want to be reassured that they’re doing the right thing. Or they may not really understand what they just read. Your friend may be able to explain the point more meaningfully than the writer could, because your friend understands you better than the writer does.
Ideas are often communicated in a “two-step flow,” a communications model that was conceived by sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz in the 1950s. An advertisers sells a product to the cool kids, who sell the other kids on it so they can be cool too. A scholar writes an article that nobody can stay awake to read, except for a popular blogger who restates the ideas and starts a wind storm of controversy.
Sociologists often talk about “elites” and “opinion leaders,” but for young people (and for most of the rest of us), the people who really influence our opinions may not have a title before or after their names and may not live in mansions. As a teenager, I was influenced by social misfits with original ideas. A humble, well-informed person could be an opinion leader for you. The owner of an art gallery in my town is one of the best listeners I know, but when she recommends a restaurant or suggests a shortcut, I listen to her because she’s lived here for forty years.
If you want to convince young people with your writing, you could first ask the question, “Do young people even read?” If they do, what do they read? Or, if they don’t read, who do they listen to? Who do they watch? And what do those people read? On one end of the flow are the millions of dollars spent answering those questions. On the other end are the fifteen-year-olds sending instant messages to their friends. If the advertisers can’t influence the fifteen-year-old writers, they will have wasted their millions.
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