Are you familiar with the name Dr. Jonathan Doris?
Dr. Doris is a cardiologist in Los Angeles, CA. He's been practicing nearly 20 years now. Oh, and he's also the direct inspiration for "JD," the main character from the beloved sitcom Scrubs.
Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence has mentioned many times in interviews (and very recently in the new and awesome Fake Doctors, Real Friends podcast) that the stories Doris would tell amazed him, and he wrote them into the show.
For example, in the pilot episode of Scrubs, a doctor tries to drain fluid from a patient's abdomen and it accidentally begins squirting high out of the patient's body like a squirt gun while everyone scrambles to stop it. It sounds like a broad comedic situation, but it really happened, according to Dr. Doris.
It's one of the first truly memorable moments for Scrubs, a show that was loaded with memorable moments (and if you disagree with me, you're wrong). Without it and other moments like it, Scrubs would have just been a forgettable sitcom.
The pitch for Scrubs is "wacky doctors in a hospital." But the reason it works is because the stories are personal. There is a perspective shared on the show that is different from other shows, particularly comedies. The stories feel real and emotional. You connect with them.
And why? Because those situations are based on someone's actual story.
Other shows do this, too
What is Seinfeld without the legendary Festivus celebration? Or the talking belly button joke ("HEELLLLOOOOOOO! LA LA LAAAA!")? Or Jerry's girlfriend who was living with "Some Dude?" Or the J. Peterman Reality Tour?
Why do these jokes work so well? Because they all actually happened. The writers took ideas from their real lives and worked them into the show.
Often, the writers don't even think they are great stories. Apparently there was a lot of pushback from the writer who suffered through his father's Festivus celebrations. When you go through a lot of life experiences, you assume they don't have much worth to them as stories.
But good writers use them. And audiences can't get enough.
Your secret weapon as a writer isn't a creative brain or flowery prose; it's you.
When my tendonitis drove up email open rates
I have an email list that hovers just around a thousand readers. For years, my open rates were around 20%. That's about average for an email list.
In 2018, I tried to go full time with my wood shop, building mainly floating shelves for hundreds of clients in my basement. After a couple months, my body – used to the lavish and leisurely existence of a writer – started turning on me for using muscles that hadn't been used in ages.
Due to the repetitive nature of building those shelves, I developed severe tendonitis in my elbow, making a lot of daily activities more difficult.
On a whim, I wrote about this pain in an email to my readers. There was no sales pitch to buy my book. It was just an interesting story to write about.
My open rate soared past 40%. I received dozens of responses. People shared their stories, their encouragement, and their advice on how to deal with it. The simple fact that I had tendonitis apparently struck a chord with a lot of people.
Why? Because it was a personal story. Audiences want to get personal with the brands they encounter – even you.
"Thank you for sharing this..."
I often get emails from readers thanking me for being so open with them. They compare me to other author's email lists that they follow, and they say the same thing: "All these other authors just email me when they have a new book to sell. You're allowing me to get to know you. I really appreciate that!"
Now, I try to get a little more personal with each email I send. I look for a personal story from my week that I can write about in an interesting way so that they have another point of connection to me.
That's within reason, of course. Some topics are off-limits.
But it works, over and over again. My average email open rate is between 35% and 40% regularly, and I'm rarely releasing books... yet they sell.
Where can you tell stories from your own life?
The medium doesn't matter
I don't care if you have a blog, you post videos, you're writing a TV show, a book, an email... getting personal in your writing builds an emotional connection with your reader.
And when you have an emotional connection, you create a fan: someone who wants to hear more from you, who believes in you, connects with you, and wants to support you.
"A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the "best-of" DVD version of your free YouTube channel; they will come to your chef's table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living – if you are content to make a living but not a fortune." — Kevin Kelly
Diehard fans don't just like a writer's words or a musician's songs – they feel that those works of art speak to them and they have a deep, meaningful connection to them.
That's because the creators made them personal.
Even if you think your stories are boring, I urge you to find ways to incorporate them into your writing. You might not strike gold every time, but the more you do it, the stronger of a connection you will build with your audience.
Tendonitis in my elbow is boring, but it connected. If Jonathan Doris hadn't shared his experiences – experiences that thousands of doctors have already gone through – then Scrubs would have never been made. If that Seinfeld writer hadn't shared his father's goofy made-up holiday with his writer buddies, we would live in a world without Festivus.
Put yourself into your writing. People want to know more about you – and they'll support your work if they do.