How to find an angle
Finding a unique angle to take on a topic is the hardest and most important part of writing a blog post.
When you’re writing a post, you know what you want to cover. You probably have some personal experience that informs your understanding. You know you have interesting things to say about hiring developers, or company culture, organizational structures, whatever it is.
Without an interesting angle to match, however, it’s unlikely that what is interesting about what you have to say will shine through.
It doesn’t matter how hard-won the understanding or how subtle the intelligence. Unless you frame the topic in the right way, your post is not going to have the reach or impact that it could.
This isn’t about clickbait, though a novel formulation of a topic will get you clicks. This is about you framing your insight in a way that can set it apart from the millions of other blog posts out there.
A quick exercise for finding an angle to write from
Here’s a simple exercise you can run to generate blog post ideas as well as to “prime the pump” on unique angles to hit in blog posts in the future.
It should take about an hour in total. By the end, you will have at least one high-quality idea for a blog post–from the content to the angle to the title.
First, put together a list of at least 20-30 perfect or as-close-to-perfect-as-possible truisms about the industry or field you want to write about. It can be helpful to have someone else put this together to avoid bias. It’s even better if you can source your truisms from a definitive relevant institution–like YC’s Essential Startup Advice guide.
It’s really hard to argue with many of these points:
- Build something people want
- Do things that don’t scale
- Get sleep and exercise — take care of yourself
They’re best practices for a reason. Look for these kinds of statements which guide people’s thinking about a topic, both the little stuff that people tend to take for granted and the foundational stuff they believe without actively thinking about it. “Show, don’t tell.” “Retention is king.” “Hire for culture.”
Example truisms you might use. The above borrows heavily from the YC guide linked earlier.
Then go through the list, preferably with a partner who you can bounce ideas off of, and set up Quicktime or Zoom to record.
For each item, you want to think about whether or not you have any reason to believe the opposite. Maybe telling, for example, is a more effective way to get certain kinds of points across. (Maybe not.)
Think about whether you can imagine interesting edge cases in which the truism might not hold. Maybe hiring for culture makes sense early on, as you build out the future leadership of your company, but becomes less important later on. Maybe not. The idea is to prod at these truisms, see whether holes can be poked in them, and most importantly, whether your thinking can do anything to fill in the gaps in new, illuminating ways.
If you picked your truisms well, you probably won’t have much to say for most of the items on your list. Skip items liberally and often–this is why you should put together a list of 20-30 truisms if you want to find one or two good blog post angles.
The 1-2 points where you find yourself passionate and engaged in the reversing of convention–those are your angles. The title of your blog post can probably emerge pretty organically from that angle. If you’re rethinking the classic instruction to “show, don’t tell,” then you can start brainstorming with something like, “When Telling Beats Showing.” The titles write themselves when you use this technique to come up with blog post ideas.
This might sound like clickbait, and it is–in the sense that any blog post on the internet circa 2018 needs to do some bare minimum of “baiting” to get people to read–but it’s also more than that. The truth is that when you take the ideas rolling around in your brain, the collected experience and war stories and insights that you feel could be valuable, and just write them down in honest, truthful, stream-of-consciousness style, they usually come out sounding generic. No one wants to read them.1
The insight isn’t what’s going to make your posts land. The angle is.
Framing is what gives insights their power
When people hear things like “build things people want” and “hire for culture” today, they’re inclined to believe them to be true.
When they’re given reason to question those base beliefs, they listen.
Chris Savage, CEO and founder of Wistia, is one of the best at leveraging this kind of curiosity in his blog posts. His titles routinely play off straightforward-sounding startup values in subtle, pointed ways. They’re contrarian without being outwardly so, and I think that’s what makes them so clickable:
- When Your Competition Accelerates, Have the Courage to Go Slow
- Thinking is Work. Give Yourself Time to Do It
- Being Busy Doesn’t Mean You’re Successful
- Great Leaders Say “I Don’t Know”
We don’t typically think that we should slow down when our competition goes fast, nor that “thinking” is work we have to actively make time for, and that’s why these titles work so well on that curiosity-gap level. Also, we may not profess to believing that being busy = successful, but we recognize (and possibly resent) the truism lurking behind that statement enough that we click to see how Chris unravels it.
The insights that Chris conveys in the posts don’t run aggressively counter to your average lines of thinking on leadership or work. You could easily come up with drier, more boring titles for each one, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
But each title above takes that core insight and stretches it around a lazy, familiar concept that we all think we know–the kinds of things leaders are supposed to say, or the kinds of ways that companies are supposed to compete. By framing the insight against those familiar terms, the insight becomes more important–and makes us want to click.
Hiten Shah is another great example:
- We Haven’t Hit Peak SaaS
- How AWS Achieved an $11.5B Run Rate by Working Backwards
- Why Less Isn’t Always More for SaaS Sites
- Copycat Your Competitors to Take the Market
- Why Trello Failed to Build a $1 Billion+ Business
Each one of these headlines plays against our expectations of how SaaS and other startup businesses should think about growth, their markets, and building products.
The thought that Trello “failed” is patently absurd on the face of it–as he acknowledges–but it makes sense when you actually read the piece and think about it in the context of contemporary venture capital and how startups are expected to grow.
Then there’s the idea that “copycatting” would be something to try–a tactic–rather than the desperate move of a dying business. It may sound wrong, but it’s been borne out many times in the last few years that copycatting is one of the most powerful strategic moves a startup can make, even one whose name isn’t Facebook.
Hiten and Chris have written (for me) some of the most memorable content on business and startups in the last several years. I remember these posts not just for their titles, but for the arguments within, and how their logic worked in order to convince me of their specific points. There are many articles I read where I can barely remember the point they wanted me to take away a few hours later. That’s not a coincidence–that’s the power of framing.
Angles don’t just decide whether we click—they decide how we read
In 2004, psychologist and neuroscientist Ullrich Ecker ran a study on article headlines. Participants were asked to read either a factual or opinion-based article and answer various questions about its content.
Half of them received a version with a headline designed to slant the reader’s perception one way, and the other half received a version with a headline designed to slant it the other way.
People’s perception of the subjects they were reading about were biased by the slant of the headline they were given–but that wasn’t the surprising part of the study.
The surprising part was that the headline a person got changed which details they were able to remember, and how well they could remember them. People remembered the actual content (whether factual or opinion-based) differently depending on the way the title framed the piece.
Framing, in other words, dictates recall–and not just people’s memory for rote details, but for people’s memory of what your post was all about.
You might be able to get more clicks on your hiring blog post by calling it, “We Got Rid of Interviews–You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.” Exploiting that natural curiosity gap, however crudely, is the oldest trick in the clickbait book. On the other hand, there’s a relatively low chance that people will remember what happened next a day, week, or month after reading.
When people read a clickbait headline like that, their curiosity is piqued–but solely because they want to fill in the gap and figure out what happens. Their engagement with that piece of content, from the beginning, is designed to be shallow and quick. It’s why clickbait is the equivalent of content junk food.
Why should anyone care?
When you write a blog post, you’re saying that you believe you have some take on a situation or problem that is unique enough that your voice should be heard.
Whether or not you actually believe it is irrelevant–when you sit down and publish that post, that’s the message you’re sending.
The problem is that for most of us, our problems (probably) aren’t all that unique, nor our ideas for solving them.
95% of startups have dealt with the question of hiring for culture and changed how they approach hiring over time. Everyone has dealt with the challenges of scaling as they grow, and a lot of those challenges don’t differ all that much from startup to startup. The problems and solutions are not the interesting part here.
How you frame your points–the angle you choose–is the interesting part.
Your post is inevitably going to be compared to a hundred or a thousand other posts people have already read, so if you want people to click, read, and remember what you said, you have to know people’s expectations and somehow subvert them.
Unless you’re Richard Branson.↩