May 09, 2022
Reading widely and diversely is key to developing some of the most important skills a writer can possess — empathy, humility, and an appreciation for the dexterity of written language. How can I claim to be a decent writer if I haven’t learned from the masters? Writers like James Baldwin, Ursula Le Guin, and Wendell Berry do so much more than craft beautiful sentences and stories. They teach us how to think critically; the importance of trying to see the world through another’s eyes; and the power of language to impact the world.
And while reading nonfiction titles on marketing, writing, or brand development is well and good, there’s more to be gleaned from the art and experience of reading than skill development. I try to pick up books from every genre, because even if I don’t overtly enjoy the experience, I have been forced to engage in a unique creative endeavor. Reading a book is an opportunity to see into another person’s mind, and that should never be considered a waste of time.
Considering New Perspectives
Whether it’s reminders to consider the diverse nature of human experience or inspiration to think outside the box, reading widely and diversely equips creatives with the depth of knowledge and empathy required for developing meaningful marketing campaigns.
In my previous life as an educator, I always ended Friday classes with a request that my students find something entertaining to read over the weekend. When students visited me during office hours for advice on how to improve their writing, I gave them a list of my favorite authors. I obviously worked with them on the basics of grammar and syntax, but that only helped them to make a single assignment better. I wanted to empower them to improve their overall writing skills and linguistic agility.
It’s relatively simple to teach someone how to improve their writing, but to become a better writer requires an individual to take it upon themselves to digest a wide variety of texts. You can’t appreciate the dexterity of any language if you’re only rarely exposed to novel uses of it (pun intended).
Reading Between the Lines
Reading also helps bring clarity to writing from a place of value rather than a strictly sales perspective. For the most part, we as humans have a fairly well-developed innate sense of wariness. We can usually tell when a person’s (or brand’s) motives are mercenary, and it makes sense that we’re reluctant to engage with such transparent efforts to sell us something.
Modern brands haven’t lost their desire for success, but they have begun to recognize the importance of making the consumer feel seen and understood. Why trust a company to fulfill your needs if they don’t even understand what those needs are?
Reading — and storytelling more broadly — encourages connection between individuals, whether those people are author and reader, fans of the same book, or acolytes of a particular novelist. We’re drawn to those stories that make us feel seen, understood, and valued. Understanding the way in which language enables that connection is key to moving beyond marketing focused strictly on sales and toward an approach that prioritizes connection and adding value to consumers’ lives.
Creating Unforgettable Moments
In his book “Building a StoryBrand,” Donald Miller argues that “the more simple and predictable the communication, the easier it is for the brain to digest. Story helps because it is a sense-making mechanism.”
Across time and cultures, storytelling has been a means of communicating and preserving knowledge, history, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs. Our brains are literally programmed to understand the cadence of story, making it an excellent means of communicating to consumers.
Take Folgers coffee, which throughout its 172-year history has relied primarily on the characteristics of the coffee itself in marketing campaigns. Even in the 1970s, Folgers was still using taglines like “Tastes as Rich as It Looks.” Beginning in the 1980s, however, the company pivoted toward emphasizing the experience of drinking coffee. Commercials showed heartwarming scenes of family reuniting, couples in love, and children on Christmas morning, playing on the association between morning coffee and meaningful everyday moments.
When shopping for coffee in their local grocery store, consumers will likely be bombarded with messages of “rich taste” and “superior quality.” Unable to discern the veracity of such claims, consumers are likely to remember Folgers’ storylike commercials and opt for the product that elicits an emotional response instead of marketing particular qualities.
A Few Places to Start
If you’re looking to expand your literary horizons, I suggest beginning with award lists. The Aspen Words Literary Prize is an award for an influential work of fiction focused on vital contemporary issues; the Lambda Literary Awards were created to garner national visibility for LGBTQ+ books; and you can find a host of genre-specific awards if you don’t know where to begin.
As you read, read actively. Underline particularly moving passages, look up words that are unfamiliar to you, take notes about feelings the book stirs up, and talk to others about what you’ve read. Active reading helps ensure you truly engage with the material and increases the chances that you’ll walk away with lessons you can implement in your work as a creative.