The World’s Most Powerful Blogging Hack, from Disney’s Imagineers

By Paul Thomas Zenki

How one shift in your thinking solves multiple problems …

My first full-time job in public relations was with Walt Disney World in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It was grunt-level stuff, but what I learned there would fuel my career as a copywriter and ghostwriter up to today.

Now I’m not talking about “tips and tricks” here. What I want to share with you is how to shift your perspective on the task of writing in a way that solves multiple problems at once — a single master key that opens many locks.

Stop producing content

I used to teach creative writing and composition at a state university, and for a decade I managed a copywriting department in the private sector. I’ve seen how our educational system mis-trains writers, from grammar school up.

We’re taught to focus on what we have to say. To arrange the material on the page so it makes sense. But Disney’s Imagineers taught me different. They transformed how I write, and how I’ve instructed others to write.

Now you may be wondering what the heck amusement park design has to do with blogging. It’s this:

To design a park that attracts, delights, and retains customers, you must map the visitor’s journey.

Stop thinking only about what you have to say and putting it on the page. Otherwise, your writing could be clear as a pure blue sky… and just as dull to look at. Instead, focus relentlessly on your reader’s journey through your writing. Ask yourself, literally at every point: What is my audience thinking and feeling right now, and what do I want them to think and feel next?

Before I was allowed to work with guests at Walt Disney World, I was trained and tested on Disney history, the Disney catalog, and the parks themselves. We toured the properties and went behind the scenes (“backstage”) to understand how the experience was designed. And let me tell you, every inch of the Disney “stage” — everywhere a guest can go is “on stage” — channels the visitor experience.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying content doesn’t matter. Of course it does. What I’m saying is:

The content is your medium, not your product. Reader experience is your product, which you craft from your medium.

Here’s what happens to each component of your blog post when you shift your thinking away from producing “content” and toward producing audience experience …

Writing headlines

At the geographic center of the Magic Kingdom park at Walt Disney World is the iconic Cinderella Castle. But the park entrance is something very odd, seeing as how you’re walking into a world of fantasy and magic. It’s Main Street USA, an idealized “hyper-normal” American town from the early 20th century. And you cannot walk to any place in the park without traversing it.

Main Street USA is intentionally designed to orient visitors by grounding them in a comfortable, familiar experience which is at the same time infused with Disney brand elements. And it leads straight to the castle, where the magic begins, serving as a transition from the everyday world outside to the playground of imagination within.

Your headlines, as well as email subject lines and other “gateway” copy, must perform the same function:

  • Your audience must intuitively understand them at a glance (familiarity);
  • They must make your audience want to enter the world of imagination beyond (curiosity);
  • They must accurately point the way to what lies ahead (honesty).

Remember, your content is a world of imagination. It is very literally a guided fantasy journey that you orchestrate inside other people’s heads using symbols on a page, even if you’re writing journalistic non-fiction.

Technically, you first have to know how the headline will look to the reader. Most importantly, how many characters do you have before your platform chops your header or subject line? Know that actual number, and stay below it.

Headlines, subject lines, outer envelope blurbs, and other first-sight short elements are the most difficult copy you’ll write. Psychologically, they have to catch the eye (usually in competition with other headers trying to do the same) and simultaneously make intuitive sense and pique curiosity, blending the familiar with the unseen, the known with the unknown.

Probably my most successful envelope as a copywriter said simply: Your insurance company hopes you throw this envelope away.

You’ll notice this blurb is not about what’s in the envelope. It’s about the audience. It makes them want to begin a journey by peeking inside. More importantly, it makes them worry they might regret it if they don’t.

Why did you click through to this article? Probably not because you trust me. But because you trust Disney, you know their reputation, and you want to at least see if there’s something you can learn from them for free.

I didn’t write that headline to describe my article. I wrote it to make you want to get on this ride and see it for yourself.

Writing ledes

Here’s a little secret: Cinderella Castle, along with all the other Disney castles, isn’t nearly as tall as it seems. The Imagineers use forced perspective, designing each level at a smaller scale as the building rises, to fool the eye.

The psychological perception of scale is just as important to getting readers to dive into your content as it is to impressing theme park guests. When it comes to ledes, size matters.

When I worked in advertising, I tested hundreds of ledes against each other. In almost every case, shorter ledes got higher read rates. I generally advise against creating “rules” for your writing, but I actually enforced a rule that no opening paragraph in our ad copy could be longer than two lines, regardless of column width.

One of the most common mistakes in college-level creative writing and entry-level copywriting is “burying the lede,” or what I call “warming up on the page.” And again, it’s a result of focusing on what you think you have to say rather than on the reader’s mental journey. Once you learn to spot it, you’ll be amazed how many articles actually begin in the third paragraph.

The lede for this article comprises just two paragraphs of two sentences each, which cover the following:

  • Who I am and how I’ve come to know what I’m going to tell you;
  • What sort of technique I’m going to show you;
  • The scope of what it will allow you to do once you learn it;
  • And incidentally the “voice” you’ll be spending time with as you read.

I don’t ramble about my time at Disney, wax nostalgic about the Disney brand, or hype my creds. Why not? Because you’ve just come through the turnstiles and I want you to hop into the gondola and take this ride right now! The quicker you come to feel like this journey is gonna be cool and you want to get on, the less likely you are to change your mind.

Writing body copy

A Disney park is not like a county fairground. They don’t put things just any old place they’ll fit. What the guest sees, and in what order, determines the arc of the experience, in the park and within the attractions.

Many of the “dark rides” snake back upon themselves to spring surprises and build suspense (and save space). But the Carousel of Progress places the audience inside a life-sized live-action slideshow which imbues the timeline with a feeling of order and inevitability. There’s a reason for the difference.

If you’re narrowly focused on your content, you’re likely to opt for a logical or chronological structure even when that doesn’t generate the most engaging experience. In fact, it rarely does. You’ll likely get higher engagement from zoom-in/zoom-out, for example, opening with a (brief) story to exemplify the issue in a way that’s emotionally compelling, then springboarding to a broader perspective.

When I work with fundraisers, I always tell them, don’t start with the numbers. Start with a person and a problem. Once your audience “gets it” on an individual level, heart to heart, then it matters that there are however many other people in the same situation.

Why have I set this particular article up in the way I have? Well, I said in the subtitle and the lede that the technique I was going to show you would solve multiple problems. Then I revealed the technique: Shift your mindset to using content as a medium to create reader experience as a product. Then I started showing you how it can work, problem by problem.

I began with headlines, then moved to ledes. Why? Because once you understood that I’d be progressing through the anatomy of the blog post itself, you weren’t just wandering, you were taking a path. That makes the journey more psychologically comfortable, which makes it more likely you’ll read to the end.

My point is, whatever structure you choose, it should be determined by your reader’s mental journey, not by the internal logic of the content itself. I wish I could remember who said it, but the single best piece of writing advice I ever heard was:

The purpose of every sentence you write is to make your audience want to read the next one.

And that, my friend, is Imagineering applied to content.

Now, a few short thoughts on four other elements of your blog post before we wrap up …

Writing subheaders

The Imagineers do amazing things with berms. And buildings.

You may have been to a Disney park a dozen times and never noticed how each themed area is visually (and sonically) separated from the others, to give you an immersive experience. Except of course for those intentional glimpses meant to lead you from one experience to the next.

Subheaders are your transitions between areas of meaning. I will often begin an article by writing my subheaders first, to give it shape so I know where I’m going. I did it for this article.

I’ve seen some writers’ advice columns recommend using subheads as a kind of visual break, a short breathing space to keep your article from getting too same-samey. That’s focusing on content rather than reader.

In this article, my first subhead was intended to surprise and intrigue: “Stop producing content.” What the hell does that mean? At that point, you weren’t yet committed to the article. I had to keep flirting, teasing you forward.

Once I’d revealed the technique I alluded to in the introductory elements, my subheads had to serve a different function, as I mentioned before, setting up your sense of being on a predictable path to make you comfortable.

This is why so many of the “rules” you read in those advice columns have little or no value. When you are Imagineering your reader’s experience, while there are some general principles that always hold, most of your decisions are based on what your audience needs to see at that particular point on that particular ride.

Using images

I recently read an article which advised no more than two images per blog post. Well, that’s a bit like saying how many windows a room should have. It should have as many as it needs.

The image serves to convey what the copy can’t. This article is all about copy (well, except for this bit) so the hero image up top is the only one I need, as it was with a recent article on social media presence for creators. On the other hand, my instructions on how to cook a tortilla Española included 7 body images to demonstrate the technique, and my article on lucid dreaming had 5 to spark the emotional state of the dreams in my readers’ minds.

Don’t worry about the number of images you use. Place them wherever you need them, wherever the visual element impels your audience’s mental journey along more efficiently or effectively than prose. It really is that simple.

Using call-outs

OK, a little history. Back in the days of print, call-outs or pull quotes …

these things right here …

had a specific purpose. The first page of an article had the hero image, headline, subhead, and lede to draw readers in. But subsequent pages tended to be walls of text, with maybe one or two body images. Remember what I said about the psychology of visual perspective? These pages looked like a chore to read.

To prevent audiences from bailing and flipping to the next item, call-outs teased an enticing portion of the content to draw them back in and keep them going. But scrolling content doesn’t have that issue. So using call-outs in the traditional way on digital platforms only creates redundancy.

If you’re using call-outs like that on scrolling formats, I guarantee you your readers are skipping either the call-out or the body content, whichever comes last, when they get to it. It’s a waste of space and time and interrupts your audience’s mental flow, jolting them out of the journey of imagination, which is the exact opposite of what it’s intended to do.

That said, call-out formatting is an excellent way to emphasize your most important points, as I’ve done in a couple of earlier sections. Let it serve the reader experience rather than thwart it.

Ending your article

When you exit the Magic Kingdom, you return to where you began, the train station at the end of Main Street. The world of imagination is behind you, and you’re ready to transition back to your everyday life.

Your wrap-up should serve that same function. And if you don’t mind my saying so, it should do it rather more subtly than hanging up a neon sign declaring “You Have Now Reached the Conclusion” as so many articles seem to want to do lately. (I’ve only referenced the ending in this final subhead because it happens to be the current topic in this rather meta article we find ourselves sharing.)

You’ll remember I said that the best writing advice I ever heard was that every sentence you write should make your audience want to read the next one. Well, that’s true of final sentences, too, strange as it may sound.

Have you ever read a book so good that the final sentence actually hurt? I remember feeling that way about Lord of the Flies and Watership Down as a boy. I so didn’t want to let go, but that feeling was tempered by knowing that a part of that world was going with me back into my non-imaginary life. And one of the first things I was going to do in that life was find more books by those authors!

You have to end your reader’s journey with a party favor. Something they can carry with them when they leave.

Now, you might be thinking I’ve set myself up here. That I’ve given myself quite a challenge by setting that demand. But no, my friend.

I’ve given the challenge to you.

Header image: Cinderella Castle and Main Street USA, Walt Disney World, Orlando, FL (Wikimedia Commons)

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.